As roboticists seek to recreate qualities inherent within the animal kingdom, researchers at Georgia Tech have imbued a machine with the sense of touch.

Robots today fly, swim, dive, slither, walk, and even — with a human at the controls — kill. But until now, robotic manipulation of objects has been clumsy, whether welding cars on an assembly line or wielding a scalpel in the operating room. Despite an evolution in the mechanics of movement and manipulation, what has been missing thus far in haptic technology is the delicate and dainty sense of touch.

"Up until now, the dominant strategies for robot manipulation have discouraged contact between the robot's arm and the world," said Charlie Kemp, lead researcher and associate professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. "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."

Kemp, director of the school's Healthcare Robotics Lab, teamed with Meka Robotics, of San Francisco, to develop a method to control robotic joints with a sense of touch along the entire arm. With the new control method, Georgia Tech's robots have performed numerous tasks requiring a more delicate touch, one that might be useful in search-and-rescue operations.

The researchers have recreated the animal sense of touch with a stretchable fabric skin covered with tactile sensors that runs the length of the robotic arm. In a preliminary trial, Henry Evans, a person with quadriplegia, used the robot arm to perform maneuvers, pulling a blanket over himself and grabbing a cloth to wipe his face, all from his bed at home.

"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."

Evans also expressed delight with the way the robotic arm "just wriggles around obstacles."

With funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Kemp and his partners released the designs and codes for the sensors and controller as open-source hardware and software, encouraging others to improve the technology. "Our belief is that this approach is the way of the future for robots," said Kemp, who is also 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."

A publication describing the research, "Reaching in Clutter with Whole-arm Tactile Sensing," appears in this month's edition of the International Journal of Robotics Research.

For more news on robotics: visit Unmanned Systems International.