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Coming soon: touchy-feely robots?

If robots are ever to leave the factory environment and become truly social, able to assist in homes, hospitals and other environments, they need to develop human faculties. One of the most important is the sense of touch, which, up to now, has been hugely problematic to implement. 

However, in April, a group of roboticists in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, have developed a robot arm that moves and finds objects by touch.

In a paper published last month, the team describe a robot arm able to reach into a cluttered environment and use “touch,” along with computer vision, to complete exacting tasks.

This ability will prove vital, in a home or a hospital for instance, where a robot may need to locate an object, which is not immediately accessible and perhaps obscured by other objects. 

The Georgia Tech robot arm can apparently achieve this, software controls its sense of touch and it can bend, compress and slide objects. It’s also been equipped with parameters to limit how hard it should press with the assistance of “springs” at its joints, which are more flexible than conventional mechanisms and an artificial “skin” that can sense pressure.

The research is financed by the “Maximum Mobility and Manipulation” program at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) . The Georgia team have made their software, which is based on the Willow Garage Robot Operating System, open source, and have shared instructions on adapting the skin. The hope is that other roboticists will aid in bringing the project to fruition. 

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