BYU lab aims to improve human-robot interactions

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Robots and their relationships with humans permeate American pop culture from “The Jetsons” and their robot maid Rosie to C-3PO and R2-D2 in “Star Wars.”

“I think it’s probably this idea that we can make things that are like people or that can . . . do things better than people,” said BYU mechanical engineering alumnus Josh Wilson. “I mean, we’re humans; we’re all about figuring out better ways to do things, and the best way to do something is to not have to.”

The contemporary fascination with robots goes much further than just entertainment.

Wilson worked with many other graduate and undergraduate students in the Robotics and Dynamics Lab on the BYU campus for two years. The Robotics and Dynamics Lab specializes in soft robotics, which means the robots are constructed using fabric and other soft materials. This type of robotics aims to make human and robot interactions easier.

“What we are focused on in the lab is working on robot systems that can work safely around people and work effectively in environments that are really hard for current robots,” said Robotics and Dynamics Lab director Marc Killpack. “There was a great promise about 60 years ago that robots would do all the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks that people didn’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing. To some extent that’s happened, but to some extent that hasn’t happened.”

One of the robots they work with is a completely inflatable air-filled robot named King Louie, which they purchased from NASA for research. Each of King Louie’s joints contain air bladders that can be inflated or deflated to control movement.

Killpack said NASA is interested in this research for a number of reasons.

“NASA is funding this research because if we are able to control these inflatable robots, then they’re lighter and cheaper to send up to space and … are safer to operate around astronauts,” Killpack said.

Killpack said soft robots have the potential to expand the usefulness and applicability of robotics technology, especially when it comes to interacting with humans. He said in the future, soft robots could help in search-and-rescue situations and provide in-home assistance.

“We really don’t have robots that can interact safely with people like that,” Killpack said.

Because soft robots have no metal parts, they are less heavy than normal robots, which can reduce harmful effects of a collision.

“The reason that’s beneficial is because when they are inflatable, they are lightweight, or more accurately, low inertia, which means if it is moving a certain speed and smacks into you on accident, it’s going to hurt a lot less than a normal robot which is moving at the same speed,” Killpack said.

Killpack said since metal robots have been so popular in our culture, soft robots will need time to gain the same level of popularity.

“It’s not easy because we have about 60 years of history with metal robots,” Killpack said referring to science fiction.

Part of helping people adjust to soft robots has to do with how humanoid they are. Levi Rupert, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who works in the Robotics and Dynamics Lab, said making robots life-like has implications.

“If you make it human-like, I think that’s actually kind of scary,” Rupert said. “So making it less human, I think, is actually more the right way to go, which is kind of weird. It’s not what you’d expect.”

Killpack also said that working with soft robots has it’s challenges.

“Working with these lightweight inflatable robots is a pain because they are just sacks of air,” Killpack said. “If you’ve seen the movie ‘Big Hero 6,’ it’s that, except worse. In the movie ‘Big Hero 6,’ he has this internal skeleton, and we only have an internal air bladder. It’s like a bike tire essentially.”

Despite this challenge, the Robotics and Dynamics Lab has found that King Louie is unexpectedly accurate.

“What we found is about 98 percent of the time, it will move to the same place within a two centimeter sphere,” Killpack said. “We didn’t expect that. That’s about as good as we as humans would get if we cover our eyes and move away and try to go back to the same place without looking.”

This discovery is significant in terms of the way humans and robots can work together and help each other toward a common goal, according to Killpack.

“(We want) the robot to predict what you are trying to do with that object and help you, so you feel like it’s another person on the end instead of a robot who has no clue what’s going on,” Killpack said.

With this type of accuracy, Killpack said he believes the utility of soft robotics is limitless.

“There are lots of tasks that will be useful to people, and that can range from digging in rubble, to helping recover victims in search-and-rescue scenarios, to helping someone in their home who is not physically able to get by on their own,” Killpack said.

Killpack said Pneubotics will change how the world uses robotics, and with the Robotics and Dynamics Lab’s partnership with Pneubotics, commercializing these robots may be possible in the not-so-distant future.

“The credit really has to go to this company who started manufacturing these things, but we definitely think … making (soft robotics) useful will revolutionize robotics and the way robots interact with people,” Killpack said.

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