NSF grant will help researchers improve the human-robot relationship

haptic collaboration
Allison Okamura interacts with a haptic (force feedback) virtual environment with a deformable object in collaboration with doctoral students Kirk Nichols (seated) and Nick Colonnese. Such virtual environment models are important components of robotic systems that work closely with humans.

Harmony in the workplace can be difficult enough in an office full of humans. But how will it be achieved when robots, whose behavior is guided by computers, join the workforce? With an eye toward enhanced safety and greater productivity, ALLISON OKAMURA, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and colleagues at four other universities are working to create new ways for humans and robots to cooperate on tasks. The National Science Foundation recently awarded the group a four-year, $3.5 million grant as part of the U.S. government’s National Robotics Initiative.

“It’s hard to get robots and people to work together, and it’s even harder to get multiple people and multiple robots to work together,” said Okamura, the lead investigator on the project.

Roughly $1.16 million of the total grant will come to Stanford. The remainder is divided among the co-principal investigators at the four other institutions: JACOB ROSEN of the University of California-Santa Cruz; GREGORY HAGER at Johns Hopkins University; BLAKE HANNAFORD at the University of Washington; and PIETER ABBEEL and KEN GOLDBERG at the University of California-Berkeley.

In the team’s grant application, the scientists said their project would address a wide range of manipulation problems that are repetitive, injury-causing or dangerous for humans to perform, yet are currently impossible to reliably achieve with purely autonomous robots.

These problems generally require dexterity, complex perception and complex physical interaction, the researchers wrote, and many such problems may be reliably addressed with human-robot collaborative systems, where one or more humans provide needed perception and adaptability, working with one or more robot systems that provide speed, precision, accuracy and dexterity.

In particular, the researchers will focus on improving human-robot teamwork in two key areas: manufacturing procedures that involve a small number of objects; and medical tasks, including suturing and dissection. In these efforts, university team members plan to work with two companies that are seeking help from robotic technology experts. One is a Kansas company that assembles wiring harnesses for commercial airplanes; the other is in robot-assisted surgery.

In both the manufacturing and medical procedures, the researchers will also seek to enhance verbal and tactile communications between the human and robot partners.

“A main focus of our project is to get robots to try to understand what people are doing and be able to step in when necessary,” Okamura said.

For more information, visit the project website.

—BJORN CAREY