— In future, robots could explore dangerous places by mimicking the distant movements of an operator (Image: Angelika Peer)
Technology that lets a human "inhabit" the body of a distant robot for remote exploration is being tested in Germany.
The robot sits on top of a wheeled platform and has an extendable arm that it uses to manipulate objects. An operator moves the robot around by simply walking or using a foot pedal and can see out of twin cameras positioned on the robot's head after donning a head-mounted display.
The controller's wrist is also connected to a touch sensitive (haptic) interface that controls the robot's arm. Furthermore, a wearable glove provides control over a three-fingered hand at the end of the robot's arm.
Force-feedback gives the operator a sense of the robot's physical interactions with its surroundings by providing resistance to the user if the robot is pushing up against or grasping something, for example. Meanwhile, microphones relay surrounding noises to a pair of headphones
Watch a video of someone using the robot to open a door (13.4MB, mpeg format). Another video shows a robot moving across a room and assembling blocks (22MB, avi format, requires DIVX). A final video shows a close-up of the glove and feedback attachment used to operate the robot's hands (9.6MB, avi format, requires DIVX).
"Being able to control a mobile robot would be useful for places too dangerous for humans to go, for example to investigate a suspicious suitcase at an airport," says Anjelika Peer, who is developing the system at Munich University, in Germany, with colleagues Ulrich Unterhinninghofen and Martin Buss.
At the moment, other "tele-operation" systems are stationary at both ends of the connection. But by summer 2007, the team hopes to have a robot with two arms.
"Having the feeling of moving around helps the user feel immersed in the remote environment," explains Peer. "With a joystick or pedal they can't easily tell if the robot has moved 10 or 20 metres."
More complex tele-operation systems that involve wearing an exoskeleton to control a humanoid robot are also under development. But these are not yet sophisticated enough to both move around and manipulate objects, Peer says, and are also restrictive and tiring to use.
The researchers plan to try collaborating using several of the robots. "They will have to fix a piece of tubing broken in two," Peer says. "One will hold the pieces together while the other seals them back together."
Ken Young, a roboticist at Warwick University, in the UK, says the system has promise. "It looked great in an office," he told New Scientist, "And you could easily make the wheels capable of moving over cross-country terrain."
But the complexity involved with operating the robots could be a problem, Young believes: "It looks good when they drive it, but it might not be so accessible to everyone."