The Robots Are Coming
Mankind has been fascinated by robotics since ancient times when myths told of bronze guardians and the Greek god of blacksmiths, Hephaestus, building mechanical servants. We’ve come a long way from the clockwork automatons built in Archytas and Lu Ban to the industrial robots common in today’s factories. However, we’ve always fallen short of the sci-fi robots that would help us with our daily tasks … until now.
One robotic challenge is that machines can’t “feel” very well. Stanford University researchers have created a thin film pressure sensor that can stretch or compress and measure that force. Created from single-wall carbon nano-tubes, this “artificial skin” could be used on robots to allow them to have a sense akin to touch. The video below even mentions long-term use on androids, such as Data from Star Trek:
Experiments at Duke University Medical Center take the sense of touch one step further. They’ve wired monkeys’ brains to allow them to move a virtual arm, and grab and feel virtual objects via a brain-machine-brain-interface (BMBI). ScienceNOW has the full story. Duke’s research could one day let people control their prosthetic limbs via thought.
But everyday robotics has left the lab. Just today, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) held an event at its vehicle display space and theme park in Tokyo to display a number of new robots developed to provide support in nursing and healthcare. The robots form part of the Toyota Partner Robot series, which is being developed to assist humans in their everyday activities.
TMC considers Partner Robots to be useful in four fields: nursing and healthcare, short-distance personal transport, manufacturing and domestic duties. The robots incorporate the latest high-speed, high-precision motor control technology, stable walking-control technology, and sensor technology that detects the user’s posture as well as their grasping and holding strength.
One of the robotic devices could help the impaired walk, similar to the exoskeleton work we reported on last month. The Independent Walk Assist helps the impaired by detecting the intention to walk using a thigh-position control sensor and a foot load sensor, and then helps the knee swing forward as the leg is brought forward. TMC, in cooperation with a range of nursing and medical facilities, plans to accelerate further development of the robots while taking into consideration feedback of medical staff, with an eye for commercialization from 2013.
Also in Tokyo, engineers at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST), are creating a robot that can help us get dressed. So far, the robot uses cameras and pistons to put a T-shirt on a human analog, which could one day help the elderly or less-abled people be more independent.
These are just a few examples of current robotics research that indicate how close researchers and engineers are to making those ancient dreams of mechanical servants become reality. The confluence of nano-scale computing and materials, advanced sensors and man-machine interfaces are helping to bring sci-fi robots out of comic books and television screens and into our daily lives.