When this robot needs a hand, it borrows yours.
In an experiment that opens a new chapter in human-machine interaction, a French research team has demonstrated how a robot can control both its own arm and a person’s arm to manipulate objects in a collaborative manner. The robot controls the human limb by sending small electrical currents to electrodes taped to the person's forearm and biceps, which allows it to command the elbow and hand to move. In the experiment, the person holds a ball, and the robot a hoop; the robot, a small humanoid, has to coordinate the movement of both arms to successfully drop the ball through the hoop.
The researchers, from the Montpellier Laboratory of Informatics, Robotics, and Microelectronics (known by its French acronym LIRMM), say the approach is still in the proof-of-concept stage, but they are confident that performing more complex tasks is possible. Their goal is to develop robotic technologies that can help people suffering from paralysis and other disabilities to regain some of their motor skills.
Adorno and his colleagues say there are advantages in having a robot controlling a person's body. The technique they're using to do that, known as functional electrical stimulation (FES), is used in rehabilitation and has physical and psychological benefits to patients."Imagine a robot that brings a glass of water to a person with limited movements," says Bruno Vilhena Adorno, the study's lead researcher. "From a medical point of view, you might want to encourage the person to move more, and that's when the robot can help, by moving the person's arm to reach and hold the glass."
Another advantage, he adds, is that capable robotic arms are still big, heavy, and expensive. By relying on a person's physical abilities, robotic arms designed to assist people can have their complexity and cost reduced. Many research teams are teaching robots how to perform bimanual manipulations, and Adorno says it seemed like a natural step to bring human arms into the mix.
Keep reading on SPECTRUM IEEE