Manipulation and sensing have long been considered two important pillars for unlocking the potential of robotics. There is, of course, quite a bit of overlap between the two. As grippers have become a fundamental element of industrial robotics, these systems need the right mechanisms to communicate with the world around them.
Vision has long been a key to all of this, but companies are increasingly looking to tactics as a method of collecting data. Among other things, it gives the robot a better idea of how much pressure it should exert on a certain object, be it a product or a human being.
A few months back, Edinburgh, Scotland-based startup Touchlab won the pitch-off at our TC Sessions: Robotics event, amid stiff competition. The judges agreed that the company’s approach to creating a robotic skin is an important one that could help unlock a more complete potential for detection. The XPrize has also agreed so far. The company is currently a finalist for the $10 million XPrize Avatar competition.
The company is currently working with German robotics company Schunk, which is supplying the gripper for the XPrize final.
“Our mission is to create this electronic skin for robots to give machines the power of human touch,” said co-founder and CEO Zaki Hussein, speaking to londonbusinessblog.com from the company’s new office space. “There are many elements to mimicking human touch. We manufacture this sensor technology. It is thinner than human skin and it can give you the position and pressure wherever you put it on the robot. And it also gives you 3D forces at the point of contact, allowing robots to perform agile and challenging activities.”
For starters, the company is exploring teleoperation applications (hence the whole XPrize Avatar thing) — specifically using the system to remotely control robots in understaffed hospitals. On the one hand, a TIAGo++ robot equipped with its sensors gives human workers an extra pair of hands; on the other hand, an operator equipped with a haptic VR bodysuit that translates all touch data. Although such technologies currently have their limitations.
“We have a software layer that translates the pressure from the skin to the suit. We also use haptic gloves,” says Hussein. “Currently, our skin collects a lot more data than we can currently send to the user through haptic interfaces. So there is a small bottleneck. We can unleash the full potential of the best haptic interface of the day, but there is a point where the robot feels more than the user can.”
Additional information collected by the robot is translated through various channels, such as visual data via a VR headset. The company is about to start real pilots with the system. “It will be in February,” Hussein says. “We have a three-month hospital trial with the geriatric patients in the geriatric acute ward. This is a world first, where this robot will be deployed in that setting.”