Robot hand with human touch

July 8, 2020

Creating a robot hand with all the nuanced sense of touch of a human one is no small task. After all, each of our fingertips has some 2,000 touch sensors called mechanoreceptors - and across the whole hand that figure jumps to nearly 20,000. But Stephen Redmond, Associate Professor at UCD School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, wants to push the envelope further still.

“An even greater challenge is miniaturisation and that’s why part of our focus is to try to make touch sensors small enough to fit into a robotic, prosthetic child’s hand," he says. "The sensors have to be quite small to fit enough into each finger to reach the resolution of human touch. So it really is an engineering challenge.”

Redmond’s project, “Design of tactile sensors for robotic and prosthetic grippers inspired by human touch” was recently awarded Science Foundation Ireland funding of €1,479,655.

This has enabled him to return to his alma mater UCD - after ten years spent in the University of New South Wales, Australia - attract PhD students and staff and build a laboratory.

Current prosthetic and robotic hands often drop objects because they cannot adequately sense friction. Redmond and his team will develop friction-based tactile sensors that will allow artificial hands to feel slipperiness and react accordingly. 

His project has three parts. The first, a neuroscience study, looks at how the skin deforms on the fingerpad when it comes into contact with different objects. The second is building a sophisticated prototype, testing the sensors with different weights and friction until it selects just the right amount of force to not damage or drop the object. The third is miniaturisation.

It’s not just the field of prosthetics that will benefit; this will be a game-changer for autonomous robotics and the world of work. 

At present, robots are mostly used in factory production lines, performing tasks on repeat. 

“But they need to be able to touch and feel what they’re trying to move so they can explore their environment. It really is the key to robotics moving into the real world and out of the structured industrial environment.”

Demand for such dexterous robots is potentially enormous and spans healthcare, retail, construction, help in the home, and more. 

“It’s quite a broad reach and I think quite an important topic because it really hasn’t been solved,” says Redmond. “There’s huge efficiency to be gained by having robotic solutions for work traditionally done using human labour. In some industries it’s hard to find this labour and it’s expensive. So retail would be one, farming and agriculture would be another, where it can be quite challenging at times to find labour to perform what are essentially dexterous manipulation tasks - sorting fruit, packing fruit into crates, stacking crates, picking fruits from the tree and the vine.”

Won’t this impact the jobs market?

“Well, I think so. Any revolutionary technology is disruptive, and it does take time to find its place in the world and for the world to readjust around it.”

Redmond highlights the positives of worker robots on, for example, building sites.

“We don't have to ask people to do these things any more that would ordinarily be considered dangerous and sometimes result in workplace injury and death. We take people out of harm’s way by putting robots in that role.”

The idea that dexterous robots might evolve to perform complex open-heart surgery is not a notion that Redmond dismisses. 

“Some of our most skilled people in society are surgeons, so it might take robots a long time to get there. It’s more challenging to build in the dexterity to work in such small spaces, but not impossible. We’ll get there.” 

In the meantime, he predicts that dexterous robots will allow older people to live in their homes for longer by relieving the burden of chores and self-care. He disagrees that they pose a threat to human interaction.

“We already have robots in our homes - they wash the dishes and they cook our food and they wash our clothes for us; they just don’t happen to be dexterous. So the idea is that they can help with the housework, help with the garden - and that might allow older people to remain living in their own communities for their entire lives.”

While he concedes that any powerful technology has risks attached, he is optimistic for the future of AI and robotics. 

“After some initial turbulence we normally find a way to legislate and develop policies that help us to maximise the benefits from these technologies and minimise the downside,” he says. “The sense of touch is really the key to the next step in artificial intelligence. We will be able to build robots that can really learn from the world and get much closer to true intelligence.”

 

This article was brought to you by the UCD Institute for Discovery - fuelling interdisciplinary research collaborations in UCD.