A small video screen mounted behind Pepe’s green plastic exterior acted as a ‘mouth’, allowing researchers to tele-operate the robot to speak to the pupils and draw their attention to a poster outlining the steps for effective handwashing, the Scotland-based university reported (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

AN INDIA-UK joint research collaboration has yielded a robot that encourages kids to wash their hands at a remote primary school in southern India.

The hand-shaped robot, dubbed ‘Pepe’, is the product of a collaboration between researchers from the University of Glasgow and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in India.

Pepe was mounted to the wall above a handwashing station at the Wayanad Government Primary School in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has around 100 pupils aged between five and 10.

A small video screen mounted behind Pepe’s green plastic exterior acted as a ‘mouth’, allowing researchers to tele-operate the robot to speak to the pupils and draw their attention to a poster outlining the steps for effective handwashing, the Scotland-based university reported.

A set of moving ‘eyes’ helped create the illusion that Pepe was paying attention to the children’s actions.

The robot helped pupils wash their hands more effectively and more consistently, boosting their rates of handwashing by 40 per cent, the UK university said.

Pupils spent twice as long on average washing their hands after Pepe’s arrival.

After the intervention, more than 95 per cent of the students could correctly determine when handwashing with soap has to be done – before a meal and after a visit to the toilet.

Dr Amol Deshmukh from the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science led the project in partnership with colleagues from Amrita University.

Dr Deshmukh said: “We chose this particular primary school for our research because the pupils are drawn from scheduled castes and tribes, a segment of the Indian population which is most affected by poor sanitation and hygiene. We believe this is the first social robotics study to try to improve the lives of children like this.

“We were delighted by the success of Pepe’s visit to this primary school. None of the children had ever interacted with anything like a robot before, but they were excited to interact with this relatively simple machine, which clearly had a positive effect on their efforts to keep their hands clean.

“Social robots can potentially create a positive impact in their lives, but they have rarely been tested with people from rural backgrounds in developing countries…”

The study also followed up with a questionnaire completed by 45 of the pupils who interacted with Pepe.

More than 90 per cent of the students liked the robot and said they would like to see ‘Pepe’ again after school vacation.

The project is the second ‘social robot’ research project conducted by the University of Glasgow and Amrita University.

Last year, they introduced a four-wheeled robot to help residents of Ayyampathy in southern India carry 20-litre bottles of water from the local well to their homes.