Humans are able stick their arms into cluttered areas like a refrigerator or reach across a table set for dinner without knocking anything over. Robots aren’t so good at that. In fact, until now, researchers generally design robots to not touch anything except for the object they’re reaching for.
But a robotic arm developed by a team lead by Charlie Kemp, associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, has touch sensors that cover its entire “arm,” helping it touch other objects gently, while reaching for a specific item. The technique gives robots a more effective and realistic method for dealing with real-world circumstances, where obstacles and clutter are usually an issue.
Kemp’s robots have reached through artificial foliage and piles of cinder blocks that search-and-rescue robots might run into.
In a particularly apt real-world exercise, Kemp’s team designed a robot arm that assisted a paraplegic. The robot was able to wipe the subject’s face with a cloth and pull a blanket over him (if slowly).
One of the things that can make robots terrible personal assistants is that they can’t always deal with the ordinary bumps and irregularities that would go into being around people. But the work with the paraplegic patient, who told observers he felt pretty safe around the machine, shows that it’s possible to teach them that. Coupled with a better sense of touch and training for both robots and people, this kind of work might open the way for more robot assistants for people with physical problems.
The team is presenting their research at the International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics in June and just published results in the International Journal of Robotics Research.
Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology