Living with robots — University of Ottawa researcher at the forefront of a revolution

Posted on Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It was not so long ago that the notion of robots living and working among us was just an idea rooted in science fiction. However, uOttawa professor Emil Petriu is rapidly turning this idea into scientific fact through his development of technology that mimics the human hand's tactile process.

Among many bits and pieces of automated wheelchairs, vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers in his lab, as well as a notably bright orange robot named Pumpkin, Professor Petriu keeps a classic model of a human skull. A reminder of what it is to be human? Maybe. But it's definitely the perfect model for developing tactile sensors and perception mechanisms for robots, giving robots a skin with detailed faces and expressions, as well as a sense of touch.

“We are using biology as our source of inspiration. Human beings are most comfortable interacting with devices that move and respond the same way we do,” says Professor Petriu.

His research is developing a novel biology-inspired touch-sensitive artificial skin able to feel not only contact forces, but the profile, temperature and elasticity of object surfaces, ultimately raising the tactile sensitivity of robots to the human level.

Researchers in many top-level research laboratories around the world have sought to develop a multimodal artificial tactile sensing capability that mimics the human hand's complex tactile process, but have not yet solved the many issues standing in the way.

Professor Petriu's research will enable the advancement of a new generation of intelligent robots able to perform tasks where the sense of touch is of paramount importance, for example, in high-risk operations such as nuclear plant maintenance, explosive device disposal or telemedicine.

His work will also play a major role in an emerging society in which intelligent machines function autonomously engaging in all kinds of interactions and necessarily creating a “symbiotic” relationship with humans. With state of the art technology, Professor Petriu will attempt to design a mechanical yet highly lifelike face, capable of representing human expressions ranging from surprise to anger, as well as intricate prosthetic limbs and sensors that convey large amounts of information.

For more information on Professor Petriu's research work with robots, read the article in Research Perspectives Magazine titled Robots and the rest of us and watch the video.

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