Haptics on the Rise
Image credit: New York Times
"Replicating that sensitivity is the goal of haptics, a science that is playing an increasing role in connecting the computing world to humans. One of the most significant advances in haptics has been made by Mako Surgical, founded in 2004 by the roboticist Rony Abovitz. In 2006, Mako began offering a robot that provides precise feedback to surgeons repairing arthritic knee joints.
Beyond advances necessary for basic safety, scientists are focusing on more subtle aspects of touch. Last year, researchers at Georgia Tech reported in the journal Science that they had fabricated bundles of tiny transistors called taxels to measure changes in electrical charges that signal mechanical strain or pressure. The goal is to design touch-sensitive applications, including artificial skin for robots and other devices.
Much research is focusing on vision and its role in touch. The newest da Vinci Xi, a surgery system developed by Intuitive Surgical Inc., uses high-resolution 3-D cameras to enable doctors to perform delicate operations remotely, manipulating tiny surgical instruments. The company focused on giving surgeons better vision, because the necessary touch for operating on soft tissue like organs is still beyond the capability of haptics technology.
Curt Salisbury, a principal research engineer at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute, said that while surgeons could rely on visual cues provided by soft tissues to understand the forces exerted by their tools, there were times when vision alone would not suffice.
“Haptic feedback is critical when you don’t have good visual access,” he said.
Other researchers believe that advances in sensors that more accurately model human skin, as well as algorithms that fuse vision, haptics and kinematics, will lead to vast improvements in the next generation of robots.
One path is being pursued by Eduardo Torres-Jara, an assistant professor of robotics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, who has defined an alternative theory he describes as “sensitive robotics.” He has created a model of robotic motion, grasping and manipulation that begins with simply knowing where the robot’s feet or hands meet the ground or an object. “It is all about recognizing the tactile events and understanding that very well,” he said. Using biologically inspired artificial skin that can detect tiny changes in magnetic forces, he has built a two-legged walking robot that is able to balance and stride by measuring changing forces on the bottoms of its feet.
Last fall, Allison Okamura, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Laboratory for Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine at Stanford, taught an online course in haptics. Students assembled “hapkits” designed by Dr. Okamura, the Stanford education professor Paulo Blikstein and Tania Morimoto, a Stanford graduate student. They then programmed them to create virtual devices like springs and dampers that could be manipulated as if they were in the real world."
Image credit: New York Times