The goal of this project is to develop ways for robots to physically interact safely with humans. A key component of quality care is the ability to gently and safely manipulate humans: assist with transfer between bed, wheelchair, toilet, and bathing area and with physical interaction with the user including feeding, dressing, grooming, and cleaning. The requirements for a manipulation system that touches people are quite different than those for an object manipulation system, which is why we distinguish these two systems. Furthermore, soft interaction should be available from a mobile robot, not just from a device rigidly bolted to the floor or a wall.
Soft manipulation is a transformative capability for safely manipulating people, and important in the Active Home and the PerMMA project. Mobile soft physical interaction with humans is a relatively undeveloped area. No current humanoid robots are fully back-drivable from any contact point, for example, and those that implement soft physical interaction do so only at selected sites using localized force sensing. Soft manipulation of fragile humans is a new challenging area for robotics, and we intend to pioneer this area. One outcome of our work will be to develop a range of soft and safe human-robot physical interaction techniques. Transfers have been identified in our discussion with PST as an important area for improved assistance. Another outcome will be to demonstrate improved and increasingly autonomous capabilities to transfer humans to and from a wheelchair, bed, shower, bath, and toilet. We expect member companies to benefit in commercializing this technology.
We are exploring alternative ways to achieve the goal of soft and safe human manipulation, including:
- Exploring the design space of soft structure by exploring systems that are lightweight, scaled in size, have a soft deformable surface such as skin, or are soft overall such as an inflatable robot. An elephant trunk is a good example of a strong and completely soft manipulator.
- Developing actuation that is back-drivable and compliant at each degree of freedom.
- Exploring soft control that uses structural force sensing or a sensitive skin to implement contact-level force control.