A University of Edinburgh student has told how she's using personal tragedy to try and spark a revolution in autonomous vehicles.

Artificial intelligence and robotics student Ebthehal Alotaibi lost her aunt in a car accident which was caused by driver error, and initially wanted to develop an autonomous taxi.

After receiving advice though she has instead created two custom-built robots, Pixie 1 and 2, which will deliver food from the Kings Buildings café to students across campus.

The robots, developed by her company Pixconvey are capable of navigating roads, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings but current regulations don't allow for autonomous vehicles without adhering to strict protocols.

The student hopes that by proving her concept on campus, she can enter Pixie 1 and 2 into road trials.

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Ms Alotaibi said: "I lost my aunt in 2014 in a car accident that also claimed her husband's life. She was just 30 years old, and their three children are left without their parents.

“It was the fault of another driver, and I can’t accept that someone could pass away because of someone else’s behaviour when driving. I did some research and found that 94 per cent of car accidents are caused by human error, so there is a lot of potential for driverless vehicles to be safer.

"Our robots constantly map their surroundings and can navigate around people, traffic and dogs (who really don’t like them!). But regulation is not yet set up for autonomous vehicles, which is why we are trialling it in a campus environment."

She will collaborate with Kings Building's catering service, which will integrate the widely-used Upay takeaway app with Alotaibi’s Pixconvey app. When ordering, if the student choses ‘delivery’, they can specify the location and choose a timeslot. Once the order is ready, the catering staff loads the food into the robot's cargo.

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Using the Pixconvey dashboard, the staff dispatches the robot, which autonomously navigates to the delivery location. Upon arrival, indicated by a dashboard notification, the catering personnel remotely opens the robot's cargo door. The customer retrieves their order and closes the door, and the robot takes itself back to the catering area.

"Getting takeaway food delivered is increasingly expensive, partly due to labour costs and shortages. Where cars are used, it also increases greenhouse gas emissions and, during the pandemic, there were hygiene concerns too.

"We think Pixconvey can address all these issues: electric vehicles have zero emissions, our business model is an affordable monthly subscription for the restaurant, and the robot sanitises the food cartons using LED rays.

“We hope that it will also create high quality jobs, for instance the technicians who operate and maintain the robots, or the insurers who will have to address this new field of activity.”

Dr John Lonsdale, Head of Enterprise at Edinburgh Innovations, said: “It’s great to see another of our student entrepreneurs showing their ingenuity and initiative to develop new technologies. We are delighted to be able to support Ebtehal in her innovation journey.”

Alotaibi’s PhD supervisor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, Dr Michael Herrmann, said: “This project also provides a test bed for students and researchers to explore machine learning in multi-agent systems. This important research area includes the direct cooperation of humans and robots which will be an important feature of our future work environment.”