Zhejiang University: X-Spider: From the Web of Technology to the Web of Life

“Let me introduce to you my second granddaughter,” an elderly lady enthusiastically announced, bending down to a half-squat as she patted the robot at her feet, “unlike other robots, this one can chat with me, and amazingly, in the Hangzhou dialect!”

The ball-bodied, six-legged robot is called X-Spider. its relevance to the global aging population and its unique value proposition sent this elder-care robot all the way to the finals of the 7th International “Internet Plus” Competition. Proudly developed by a group of Zhejiang University undergraduates, the X-Spider can navigate obstacles, carry numerous objects such as bottles of water, and is conversant in two languages: Mandarin and the Hangzhou local dialect.

“Our beloved spider was not born in a day. In fact, even the concept of it took time to develop,” explains WANG Zhenyang, the Computer Science major who leads the project. Tracing the origins of X-Spider back to the early days of team meets at the University’s Student Robot Association, he continues that it was initially just a side hobby, “we just wanted to build a machine that would be an interesting addition to our daily lives.”

Built on the technical foundations of a few senior students and after a year’s worth of trial and error, the inaugural version of the X-Spider was completed in the autumn of 2020. Back then, it was a mechanical assistant that lifted heavy weights for the elderly. However, this was enough to inspire sophomores like Zhenyang to continue the good work being done.

WANG Yutong, from the School of Management, recalls the X-Spider’s immediate appeal to her. When asked about her first impression of the robot, she vividly remembers how when she first set eyes on the robot, she was instantly drawn to it. “I knew I had to be part of this project and we clicked from the get-go”, she notes with a chuckle.

Yutong stays with her extended family where four generations live under the same roof. Since young, she has enjoyed talking with her grandparents and the elderly neighbors. During those conversations, she noted the multitude of difficulties facing “empty-nest” seniors – a vulnerable community of elderly individuals whose children typically work in cities hundreds of miles away. Due to limited mobility and financial constraints, these seniors are usually found alone in their homes. “My discussions with the elderly revealed their deep desire to be heard, and to communicate. This made me think: what if I could get a robot to chat with them? Wouldn’t it remove their deep-seated loneliness and improve their emotional well-being?”

Team spirit matters

“Ideas are aplenty, but execution is the key determinant in success,” Zhenyang recalls the long hours and hard work put in to upgrade the X-Spider, “Frankly speaking, there were moments when I was completely burnt out and even entertained thoughts of quitting. During those tough moments, I remembered the mission behind this project and why we needed make this work.” This new-found inspiration, coupled with the unwavering support of faculty, family, and fellow students, pushed Zhenyang and his team to persevere through the finish line.

Behind the scenes, teamwork has also been an integral element. To develop the complex cognition, wireless communication and seamless navigational functionalities of the X-Spider, Zhenyang needed to rely on the diverse experience of his team. With backgrounds ranging from mechatronics’ to artificial intelligence, the team worked through ups and downs.

To illustrate his point on teamwork, Zhenyang shared of a time when the team had spent over two months modifying a mechanical structure of the robot. “When it was time to test the X-Spider, we realized one of its legs was repeatedly malfunctioning,” he says while shaking his head “but we pooled together our expertise and delved deep into possible sources of error.” Eventually, the team discovered a control panel issue was creating the repeated malfunction and fixed it accordingly.

Robot with human touches

“The X-Spider is not just a machine. It is a robot with a heart, one with a touch of humanity.” Prof. ZHANG Kejun, the in-charge of NEXT Lab, witnessed the genesis and growth of the X-Spider, “I provided the students with guidance and advice, but they built the entire robot from scratch.”

Just this summer, the team brought the X-Spider to the Hangzhou Social Welfare Centre for a pilot test. Surprised at the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the robot, a nurse at the center even compared the X-Spider to an efficient sidekick. She marveled at how the X-Spider was able to augment and amplify the positive impact carried out by staff at the center.

This sentiment was also shared by Prof. PAN Yunhe, former president of Zhejiang University, who believed that the project’s use of AI, robotics and advanced computing can help realize creative endeavors for the economic and social benefit of the wider community.

With an eye on the evolving needs of the elderly community, the team has plans to further upgrade the various features of the X-Spider. The team hopes the robot can serve and repay those who have contributed so much to society, giving their golden years an additional shine.