A Sense of Touch Makes Robots More 'Human'

ReutersPublished: January 3, 2014318 views
Published: January 3, 2014

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing robots with a sense of touch. They have produced artificial skin that works with computer software to allow robots to physically interact with humans and, as Ben Gruber reports, one man is already seeing the benefits.

Henry Evans is tucking himself in for the first time in 10 years. Evans became quadriplegic and mute after suffering a stroke in 2003. He now has limited use of only one finger.

Evans is using a computer interface to control a uniquely specialized robot, one that has the ability to feel its way through tasks with a sense of touch.

Speaking via text to voice software over a computer, Evans recalls his first physical interaction with the robot.

"With the touch sensitive skin I can feel the robot keeping contact forces low but still in constant pursuit of its goal. I felt immediately that it wouldn't hurt me. But rather it seemed aware of my presence as it went about its business."

Designer Charlie Kemp, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, says most robots are built to work on factory production lines, rather than to interact safely with humans. So he looked to nature to make robots more human-friendly.

"Biological organisms, animals, insects, they have tactile sensing over their whole bodies. Their entire body is sensitive to touch. And robots haven't had that capability, so one of the first things we need to give robots is the sensor, not just eyes, not just ears, but skin."

And it's this robot's artificial skin that sets it apart, allowing it to feel it way through designated tasks. The sensors on the skin feed back to a computer program which models the environment and the arm's orientation within it.

Kemp says his team are now in the process of upgrading their robot by giving it the ability to map as it explores new environments.

He says there is still a lot of research ahead, but believes that this type of technology will one day dramatically improve the quality of life for people like Henry Evans. Credit: Reuters.

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