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UTA Project Gives Robots Sensitive Skin

Think about robots, and up pop images of soulless automatons made out of metal and circuits. But a team from the University of Texas at Arlington has just won a $1.35 million National Science Foundation grant to give robots sensitive, human-like skin.

Robots have captured America’s imagination for decades, from comics and novels to television and film. We’ve devoured stories of hyperintelligent machines with anthropomorphic qualities that are able to help humans with amazing efficiency. Yet the only robotic assistant most people are familiar with is the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. The Roomba may be an efficient tool, but it doesn’t exactly inspire visions of a future with C-3P0 or Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data.

Now a team from UTA's Research Institute (UTARI) in Fort Worth could help humans get one step closer to more intelligent, and more human-like, robots -- complete with soft skin and high-tech sensors.

The four-year project aims to develop robots with more advanced functions that can interact with humans in a variety of settings. Electrical engineering professor Dan Popa, who runs the project, says that if robots are to do more complex functions, they need to be able to get better feedback and perceive the environment around them.

“If the robot runs into an object or runs into a person, there’s no way for the robot to know that that’s bad or that it caused harm,” Popa says. “So attaching these sensors around the robot can make it safer, and more intelligent, and a lot easier to use.”

Popa’s team works with manufacturers to allow robots to do more advanced tasks by implanting sensors and giving them more delicate motor functions.

One example Popa demonstrates is called ZENO. Built by local technology company Hanson Robotics, ZENO looks like a robot child, with a metal-and-plastic body and a cartoony, child-like face.

Graduate student Joe Sanford moves ZENO around using an XBox Kinect controller, making the robot mimic his moves.

Popa’s team is working with Hanson to enhance ZENO, by adding skin-like sensors that will allow the robot to register touch, pressure, temperature, proximity and other data. That means the robot will be able to sense whether someone is trying to shake its hand or touch its face.

Feedback is key for this robot because UTARI and its partners believe ZENO could help diagnose autism in infants and toddlers.

“We want to use it as a way to transfer social skills from the robot to the child,” Popa said. “Turns out they were much more attracted to the robot [and] listened to the instructions more closely than a human.”

Popa says that advances in technology and economies of scale have helped bring down the cost of developing robots. Manufacturers can now take advantage of many types of common technology that surround us, from gyro sensors in our cell phones to Wii game remotes.

Popa says his project shows how quickly robot technology is advancing, and how that gap between science fiction and reality is closing.

“We really believe this technology will make an impact and the application of robots in everybody’s lives in the future,” Popa said. “And I really think a few years down the road you will be going to the store, buying your favorite robot, and it will be in part thanks to the technology we’re developing today.”

So we’re going to have to wait a little longer for our own robotic assistants.