Haptics and the robotics revolution

April 02, 2014

We are on the cusp of a robotics revolution. From the 1950’s aspiration of a humanoid robot in every home, through the 1980s where robotics enabled massive automation by replacing a workforce, our view of how we interact with robots has changed. One thing that has never really become clear though is how exactly we as humans will interact with robots in a way that allows a symbiotic coexistence. If robots are to augment our existence, then there is a fundamental level of information that we need to exchange in order to allow us to interpret their actions and respond appropriately but this is not always an easy thing to do.

haptics-and-robotics-revolution

Touch is one of the most basic and immediate senses we possess, but how and should tactile information exchange take place in robotics? Feedback through touch, haptic feedback, allows us to make instinctive and subconscious decisions. It is information without the need for interpretation and as such, potentially one of the most valuable forms of feedback in terms of robotic control. Incorporating this into the way we control and interact with technology can provide huge benefits – increased precision, reduced fatigue, delicate manipulation – and allows us to do things we couldn’t do before through machines and devices. 

Touch is one of the most basic and immediate senses we possess, but how and should tactile information exchange take place in robotics?

Haptic feedback can be anything from a simple vibration which indicates when limits are reached; to providing full force feedback in a complex teleoperated system like a surgical robot. Academia has explored a multitude of haptic interfaces and sensing approaches which provide robots with a way of accessing this realm of sensation, however, the commercial impact of such solutions can render this information impossible to practically implement. To be successful haptic interfaces must be carefully engineered and matched to the user’s expectations and needs. This requires a deep knowledge of the product application, an understanding of product usability and the ability to engineer the haptic functionality tightly into the product design. It is not necessarily a case of ‘more is more’, however. 

This need to customize the haptic interface to the product design and user experience means that it is often not sufficient to use an off the shelf haptic input device. To gain the benefits of a haptic interface it’s often necessary to create one suited especially for a given product but that does not necessarily mean a complex and expensive development. In robotics, it’s sometimes enough to use the actuator itself as the sensor. For example, something as simple as a precisely controlled brushless DC (BLDC) motor can provide a level of feedback efficacy that may be sufficient to deliver 80% of the subconscious decision-making required in the control of something as complex as a surgical robot. 

The human machine interface is critical to the robotics revolution and while a rich interface will be critical to the success of the system, that doesn’t necessarily require complexity and cost, it just requires us to be smart with its implementation. 

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