New Technologies are Giving Robots a Sense of Touch. What’s Next?

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The Sensitive Robot: How Haptic Technology is Closing the Mechanical Gap

One differentiator that’s always separated humans from robots is our ability to touch and feel, but advances in haptic technology are rapidly closing the mechanical gap.

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And yet, force feedback isn't a catch-all solution. While the RIO surgical robot can contain its user within a clearly defined area, robots like the ones that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, or to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, are navigating the chaos of unpredictable environments. Researchers must shift gears to provide better solutions for the operators of these types of systems, who are tasked with turning wrenches or doorknobs by peering through cameras that are murky with oil, or flickering due to the ionizing effects of elevated radiation levels.

Instead of obsessing over how to transmit the sensation of touch to the user in a meaningful, non-distracting way, companies like Los Angeles-based SynTouch are focusing on the machines themselves. If a robot knows what it's touching, why not program it to react accordingly? SynTouch's BioTac sensors are designed to mimic the human fingertip, detecting force as well as vibration and temperature. By combining all three kinds of inputs, a BioTac-equipped robotic hand might be able to discern glass from metal (based on temperature), and a button from its surrounding panel (based on texture). But as handy as that input would be to a human user, robots might make better use of the information.

According to SynTouch co-founder and head of business development Matt Borzage, it's a matter of speed. “With humans, our hands need to make thousands of adjustments per second when holding something. If it starts to slip, to send that information all the way up to the brain and all the way back down the arm takes too long. That's why the spinal cord is connected to the arm,” says Borzage. For a robot hand to achieve that level of human-like precision, and avoid constant fumbling, it has to act independently. Waiting for an operator to receive a haptic signal, process it, and send back a command is a recipe for halting, klutzy failure. “It's why we need to implement some low-level reflexes into the robotic arm that mimic that spinal cord level reflex,” says Borzage.

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This reflex-based approach is being adopted by the makers of the Shadow Hand, one of the world's most dexterous robotic hands. “For remote manipulation, there's no great benefit yet for having complex sensing because you can't get that back to the operator,” says Shadow Robot Company's managing director Rich Walker. “You want that data to be interpreted by the robot, rather than being rendered back to the human.” The London-based company works closely with SynTouch, which created a Shadow Hand BioTac kit to help research-oriented customers integrate the fingertip sensors with that system. But for the touch-enhanced technology to make the leap to widespread real-world adoption, such as in robots used by material handlers in nuclear power facilities, a smart, nimble manipulator could be feasible long before a system with haptic feedback.

Haptic technology may ultimately give robots a stronger sense of “self”

It would be unfair to say that haptic technology, as it is traditionally defined, has been abandoned. If anything, it's evolved, encompassing both machines that can feel, and machines that can share that sensation with humans. Montreal-based Kinova Systems is currently developing a haptic-enabled upgrade to its existing, joystick-controlled JACO gripper arm. The arm can be attached to a wheelchair to enable someone with upper-body disabilities to grab and manipulate an item, and give that person a refined sense of “touch,” while doing so via the gripper's three individually controlled, underactuated “fingers.” The second phase of the research will apply feedback to the operator, possibly through an arm or headband. But the first step will be grippers that sense and identify the objects they touch, and adjust accordingly; a glass of water, for example, might be held level, and with just enough pressure to maintain a grip, to avoid shattering the glass.

The field of haptics, in other words, may wind up helping robots first. If companies like Cambridge R&D, SynTouch and Shadow Robot can successfully court the major players in robotics—the ones whose systems have become ubiquitous in hospitals, under oil rigs, or throughout the world's battlefields and disaster zones—those machines will need less monitoring. They'll catch the wrench before it tumbles into the plume of oil, or snip a single wire within the bomb's snarl of cables. Call it a happy accident: in the quest to make machines that can transmit touch, and that are easier to control, roboticists have made machines that better control themselves.

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The following companies are not held by T. Rowe Price Health Sciences Fund, T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth Fund, T. Rowe Price Growth & Income Fund, T. Rowe Price Growth Stock Fund, T. Rowe Price Global Technology Fund, T. Rowe Price New Horizons Fund, or T. Rowe Price Science & Technology Fund as of December 31, 2012: Show Robot, Kinove Systems, Syntouch, Mako Surgical, Cambridge Research & Development.