Roboticists developed a robot arm that moves and finds objects by touch, a vital ability if robots are ever to begin to undertake tasks in human environments

April 28, 2013

Researchers Put Sense of Touch in Reach for Robots


Finding and recognizing objects by touch in your pocket, in the dark or among items on a cluttered table top are distinctly human skills — ones that have been far beyond the ability of even the most dexterous robotic arms. Rodney Brooks, a well-known roboticist, likes to demonstrate the difficulty of the challenge for modern robots by reaching into his pocket to find a particular coin. Now a group of roboticists in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, led by one of Dr. Brooks’s former students, has developed a robot arm that moves and finds objects by touch. In a paper published this month in the International Journal of Robotics Research, the Georgia Tech group described a robot arm that was able to reach into a cluttered environment and use “touch,” along with computer vision, to complete exacting tasks. This ability is vital if robots are to leave the world of factory automation and begin to undertake tasks in human environments, like patient and elder care or rescue missions during emergencies.“These environments tend to have clutter,” said Charles C. Kemp, the director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech and Dr. Brooks’s former student. “In a home, you can have lots of objects on a shelf, and the robot can’t see beyond that first row of objects.”

The development is part of a wide range of advances in the last two years that foretell a world in which robots will move freely in human environments, to be able to work near them and with them.

For the safety of workers, industrial robots are either kept in metal or glass cages, or protected from humans by “light curtains,” which cause the robots to stop if a human approaches.

That has begun to change with a new generation of robots from companies like Rethink Robotics in Boston, and Universal Robots in Denmark, that make robot arms that can operate safely in proximity to human workers.

Robots, guided by machine vision, have also been limited by their inability to reach into spaces, the way living creatures can, to pick out an object. They are, in fact, programmed to avoid contact.

“We’re flipping that on its head,” Dr. Kemp said. “Let’s say contact with the arm is fine, as long as the forces are low.”

The Georgia Tech researchers have produced a robot arm that can reach and then use software to control its sense of touch, making it possible to find specific objects in a collection or area.

Dr. Kemp said the researchers were able to achieve success, both with a robot and with digital simulations, after a relatively small series of attempts, and using a simple set of primitive robot behaviors.

The algorithms used gave the arm qualities that seemed to mimic human behavior. For example, the robot was able to bend, compress and slide objects. Also, given parameters designed to limit how hard it could press on an object, the arm was able to pivot around objects automatically.

The arm was designed to essentially have “springs” at its joints, making it “compliant,” a term roboticists use to define components that are more flexible and less precise than conventional robotic mechanisms. Compliance has become increasingly important as a new generation of safer robots has emerged.

The robot also has an artificial “skin” that can sense pressure or touch.

“If we look in biology, it’s not just compliance at the joints that all of these organisms have,” he said. “They also have good sensing of forces across their entire body.”

The researchers built their software for a simulated “cluttered” world and for an operating robot. The robot’s arms were designed by Meka Robotics, a San Francisco company that makes a variety of robot components. The software is based on the Willow Garage Robot Operating System, or ROS, which is intended to be shared freely.

The Georgia researchers have made their software open source as well, and shared instructions to make and adapt low-cost robot skin, in the hopes that other robot makers will improve and advance what they have done.

The research was financed by the “Maximum Mobility and Manipulation” program at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The researchers chose not to describe the new robotic behaviors as “emergent” — a term used for a complex system created from simple component functions — but Dr. Kemp said it was a reasonable description.

“To me, it does seem like sort of emergent intelligence, with the robot moving through this complex environment,” he said.

Roboticists are most excited by the potential such a robotic ability holds. In a separate paper, which will be presented in June at the International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics at the University of Washington in Seattle, the Georgia Tech scientists have described how the technology might be employed in hospital or rehabilitation settings for patient care.

In a video produced by the lab, a robot arm is shown wiping the mouth of a disabled man and adjusting a blanket. Volunteers who allowed the robot to touch them said the sensations were not uncomfortable.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: