Dec. 31 - 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. 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. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HENRY EVANS, QUADRIPLEGIC TRIAL PARTICIPANT, SAYING: "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. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHARLES KEMP, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, GEORGIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, SAYING: "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. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHARLES KEMP, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, GEORGIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, SAYING: "The robot, in every moment in time, it makes a simple model of its arm and the arms contact with the world. And using this model it makes predictions on what will happen if I move this way or move this way. And then based on some clever mathematics, it says this is the best thing I can do to move close to my goal while keeping the forces low." And Kemp says keeping forces low is the key to successful human interaction. The arm is flexible, much like a human's....and as it comes in contact with obstacles... it gauges how much pressure to apply to reach its goal without damaging its surroundings. 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.