March of the touchy feely robots

Fantasy may soon be surpassed by reality if research into robot tactility at John Hopkins University comes to fruition.

Allison Okamura is setting up the engineering faculty’s first lab dedicated to robotic haptic exploration.

‘Haptic’ means anything related to the sense of touch,’ said Okamura. ‘ I program robotic fingers to explore unknown environments and give them tactile sensing and force sensing. I try to emulate the human ability to manipulate, touch and explore.’

Robots with a sense of touch may provide scientists with many difficult challenges but they could produce important payoffs.

The U.S. Navy want robots that can run their fingers along objects resting on the floor of an ocean for salvage operations; and NASA is interested in robotic hands that could transmit information about the strength and texture of rocks on other planets. Here on Earth, surgical robots with a fine sense of touch could ‘feel’ the difference between a blood vessel and a bone.

Okamura has already worked on a robot equipped with two soft fingertips made of rubber-coated foam.

Tiny nibs on the rubber coverings behaved like the skin on human fingers, helping the robot sense and grasp unfamiliar objects. Using specialised tactile sensors and control methods; these robotic fingers explored objects to gather information about surface properties such as cracks ridges and textures.

Okamura plans to build on this research and develop a new robotic finger with a sphere at the tip, capable of rotating like a paint roller. ‘A sphere like this could move all over a surface,’ she says. ‘It would be excellent for exploration. I’m hoping to build a system that can recognise features first on a hard surface and later on a soft surface.’

Her Haptic Exploration Lab also will focus on a related field: using computers and a specially constructed joystick, stylus or glove to transmit sensory information to human hands.

Such haptic interfaces would allow users to ‘feel’ objects that exist in a virtual environment.

Okamura believes this technology could help a surgeon practice a delicate operation without risk to a human patient. Similarly, it could allow a geologist on Earth to ‘feel’ the texture of a boulder discovered by a robotic exploration device on another planet.