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Engineering highly adaptable robots requires new tools for new rules

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Posted April 11, 2017

Northwestern University mechanical engineering professor Todd Murphey and his team are engineering robots that one might say could make robotic assistance as seamless as “humanly” possible.

Assembly line workers won’t be swapping stories with their robotic counterparts any time soon, but future robots will be more aware of the humans they’re working alongside. Roboticist and aerospace engineer Julie Shah and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing next generation assembly line robots that are smarter and more adaptable than robots available on today’s assembly lines. The team is designing the robots with artificial intelligence that enables them to learn from experience, so the robots will be more responsive to human behavior. The more robots can sense the humans around them and make adjustments, the safer and more effective the robots will be on the assembly line. Image credit: Science Nation, National Science Foundation

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team is using novel algorithmic tools, such as a drawing robot, to develop the algorithms, or rules of behavior, that would greatly enhance a robot’s ability to adapt to human unpredictability.

Murphey points out that in order for robots to help people, they have to have at least a basic understanding of the types of tasks people can do. Some tasks, like lifting and placing an object, are close to the types of tasks that robots already do. Other tasks, like drawing, are harder for robots, partly because there are so many ways to get the same image. As Murphey explains: “And so, drawing is a type of task that’s maybe not the same as that sort of precision manufacturing task that we’ve seen robots do historically.”

Murphey sees many possibilities for robots that work alongside humans in everyday tasks, but one application his lab is focused on currently is physical therapy. The goal is to develop robots that can help patients not only move through the paces of their physical therapy without hurting themselves but allow them to complete movement tasks by creating mechanical environments to make this feasible. “Algorithms developed here will eventually run on physical therapy robots designed to help people with tasks like balance and feeding themselves,” says Murphey.

His collaborator, Julius P. Dewald, runs the Northwestern School of Medicine’s Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences Department. Dewald has pioneered the use of robotics in stroke rehabilitation and sees great promise in Murphey’s new approaches.

Source: NSF

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