Robots Develop Sense of Touch: Major Implications for Robotic Limbs (Video)

First Posted: May 01, 2013 11:59 AM EDT

Robots can be clumsy. They knock things over accidentally and have to recalculate routes in order to avoid objects. Yet now, researchers have found a way to allow a robot to delicately reach through clutter in order to pick up an object. The new creation has major implications for robotics and the creation of touch-sensitive limbs.

When people or animals go about their daily lives, they often have to reach around objects in order to select a certain item. For example, your arm may brush against glasses in a cabinet as you reach for a bowl, or an animal may brush past rocks or twigs as it forages. Yet while our arms brush these objects, we rarely knock them over. Now, researchers have found a way for robots to do the same.

"Up until now, the dominant strategies for robot manipulation have discouraged contact between the robot's arm and the world," said Charlie Kemp, lead researcher and associated professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, in a news release. "Instead of avoiding contact, our approach enables the arm to make contact with objects, people and the rest of the robot while keeping forces low."

These forces in particular are the key to delicate movements. If the robot pushes too hard, it could clumsily knock things over or break things. In order to overcome this, the researchers developed a control method that works in tandem with compliant robotic joints and whole-arm tactile sensing. This keeps the robot's arm flexible and gives the robot a sense of touch along its entire arm.

So does it work? In order to test the arm, the researchers had it perform several tasks. The arm was able to successfully reach through dense artificial foliage and other clutter to collect an object.

In addition, researchers developed tactile sensors made out of stretchable fabric that covers the entire arm of a robot. The robotic arm was used in a preliminary trial by Henry Evans, a person with quadriplegia. He was able to use the arm to perform tasks such as pulling a blanket over himself and grabbing a cloth to wipe his face.

The new technology could have huge implications for robots used in search-and-rescue missions along with the creation of artificial limbs for people.

"Our belief is that this approach is the way of the future for robots," said Kemp in a news release. "It is going to allow robots to better operate in our homes, our workplaces and other complex environments."

The details of this new technology were published in the International Journal of Robotics Research.

Want to see the arm in action? Check out the video below, courtesy of Georgia Tech.

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