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Robots in development can reach out and touch someone

Georgia Tech team is working on a robotic arm that can "feel" through clutter to reach something, a common search-and-rescue task.

In a preliminary study, quadriplegic Henry Evans uses a robot to pull a blanket over himself and grab a cloth to wipe his face. Georgia Institute of Technology

Robotic prostheses may have a way to go before they work exactly like human limbs, but researchers are making great strides. A team out of Georgia Tech is working on new technology that could give these robotic limbs something akin to a sense of touch.

Thanks to tactile-sensing material that covers the entire prosthesis and software that integrates the gathered data, this robotic arm can maneuver through clutter and distinguish between hard and soft objects as it grips, pushes, and pulls more intuitively.

"Up until now, the dominant strategies for robot manipulation have discouraged contact between the robot's arm and the world," Charlie Kemp, lead researcher and associate professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, said in school news release. "Instead of avoiding contact, our approach enables the arm to make contact with objects, people, and the rest of the robot while keeping forces low."

As Kemp's team reports this month in the International Journal of Robotics Research, the technology could assist people with disabilities and improve search-and-rescue operations.

Kemp's Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech has fabricated tactile sensors in the form of stretchable material, which is used to cover the robotic arm. The lab also developed a control method that works in conjunction with the tactile-sensing material to keep the arm flexible and mimic a sense of touch across the whole arm.

In a preliminary trial using the new sensors and controls, quadriplegic Henry Evans used the bot to pull a blanket over himself and wipe his face with a cloth. He says the arm "just wriggles around obstacles" and it "feels really safe to be close to the bot."

Kemp's team released the designs and code for the sensors and controller so that researchers and hobbyists alike can use the open-source software and hardware to further their projects. The team plans to present its findings from this preliminary trial in June at the International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics in Seattle.