Wayfinding robot 'Francesca' returns to Ottawa County

Francesca, the humanoid robot who helps visitors find their way around Ottawa County’s Fillmore Administrative Building, is back in service. The wayfinding robot was idle after COVID-19 hit. Her touch screen risked spreading germs. 

However, Francesca’s interface has been updated to be touchless with voice activation and facial recognition, officials say. 

The Clerk-Register of Deeds Office is also piloting a program that will allow Francesca to send a message to an employee when a customer has arrived for an appointment with him or her.

A customer who arrives in the main entryway of the county building and steps into Francesca’s sensor area is greeted with a friendly “how can I help you?”

Saving money

Francesca is primarily a wayfinding system. It would take an estimated one and a half employee positions or about $85,000, including benefits, to staff the entryway, County Administrator Al Vanderberg says.

Francesca cost $66,000 in her first year and about $10,000 annually after that.

The robot first came on board at Ottawa County more than two years ago with six months of research, including a visit to Western Michigan University’s Pepper robot, and a six month pilot program.

Learning curve

“She’s had over two years to learn,” says Aaron Boos, manager of applied technology in the Ottawa County information technology department. “If she doesn’t know something she is updated immediately, so the next time she knows the answer.”

As the customer asks their question, they can see it typed out on Francesca’s screen, so they know they’ve been heard correctly

A seemingly simple question can be asked in a variety of ways, Boos says, and Francesca learns each time a new or reworded question is asked.

Although the robot is capable of movement, that feature has not been enabled. Some day, Francesca may be able to take customers to their appointments in various county departments.
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Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.