Robots with sensitive arms for delicate assistive tasks

May 9, 2013

With the new control method, Kemp’s robots have performed numerous tasks, such as reaching through dense artificial foliage and a cinder block representative of environments that search-and-rescue robots can encounter (credit: Georgia Tech)

For safety reasons, robot makers have avoided contact between the robot’s arm and the world.

Now Georgia Tech and Meka Robotics researchers have developed a control method that enables a robot’s arm to make contact with objects, people, and the rest of the robot while keeping forces low.

The method  works with compliant robotic joints and whole-arm tactile sensing, and keeps the robot’s arm flexible, giving the robot a sense of touch across its entire arm.

With their control method, Kemp’s robots have performed numerous tasks, such as reaching through dense artificial foliage and a cinder block representative of environments that search-and-rescue robots can encounter, said Charlie Kemp, lead researcher and associate professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

Kemp’s lab also has promising results that could impact the future of assistive robotics. They have developed tactile sensors made out of stretchable fabric that covers the entire arm of a robot.

A kinder, gentler robot

In a preliminary trial with the new control method and sensors, Henry Evans, a person with quadriplegia, used the robot to perform tasks for himself. He was able to pull a blanket over himself and grab a cloth to wipe his face, all while he was in bed at his home.

This trial was conducted as part of the Robots for Humanity project with Willow Garage. To ensure safety, researchers from Kemp’s lab closely monitored the activities.

“I think it’s a good safety feature because it hardly presses against me even when I tell it to,” Evans said after the trial. “It really feels safe to be close to the robot.” He was also impressed by how the robot’s arm “just wriggles around obstacles.”

‘The way of the future for robots’

Kemp’s research team has also released the designs and code for the sensors and controller as open source hardware and software so that researchers and hobbyists can build on the work.

The research is part of an ongoing effort to create a new foundation for robotics, where contact between the robot’s arm and the world is encouraged.

“Our belief is that this approach is the way of the future for robots,” said Kemp, who is director of Georgia Tech’s Healthcare Robotics Lab and a member of Georgia Tech’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines. “It is going to allow robots to better operate in our homes, our workplaces and other complex environments.”

This research is funded by the DARPA Maximum Mobility and Manipulation  and funded in part by NSF and Willow Garage.

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