NEW YORK — Finding and recognizing objects by touch in your pocket, in the dark, or among items on a cluttered table top are distinctly human skills — ones that have been far beyond the ability of even the most dexterous robotic arms.
Rodney Brooks, a well-known roboticist, likes to demonstrate the difficulty of the challenge for modern robots by reaching into his pocket to find a particular coin.
Now, a group of roboticists in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, led by one of Brooks’s former students, has developed a robot arm that moves and finds objects by touch.
In a paper published this month in the International Journal of Robotics Research, the Georgia Tech group described a robot arm that was able to reach into a cluttered environment and use ‘‘touch,’’ along with computer vision, to complete exacting tasks.
This ability is vital if robots are to leave the world of factory automation and begin to undertake tasks in human environments, such as patient and elder care or rescue missions during emergencies.
‘‘These environments tend to have clutter,’’ said Charles C. Kemp, the director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech and Brooks’s former student. ‘‘In a home, you can have lots of objects on a shelf, and the robot can’t see beyond that first row of objects.’’
The development is part of a wide range of advances in the last two years that foretell a world in which robots will move freely in human environments, to be able to work near them and with them.
For the safety of workers, industrial robots are kept in metal or glass cages or protected from humans by ‘‘light curtains,’’ which cause the robots to stop if a human approaches.
That has begun to change with a new generation of robots from such companies as Rethink Robotics in Boston and Universal Robots in Denmark. They make robot arms that can operate safely near human workers.
Robots have also been limited by their inability to reach into spaces to pick out an object. They are, in fact, programmed to avoid contact. ‘‘We’re flipping that on its head,’’ Kemp said. ‘‘Let’s say contact with the arm is fine, as long as the forces are low.’’
The Georgia Tech researchers have produced a robot arm that can reach and then use software to control its sense of touch, making it possible to find specific objects in a collection or area.
Kemp said the researchers were able to achieve success, both with a robot and with digital simulations, after a small series of attempts and using a simple set of primitive robot behaviors.
The robot also has an artificial ‘‘skin’’ that can sense pressure or touch.
The researchers built their software for a simulated ‘‘cluttered’’ world. The robot’s arms were designed by Meka Robotics, a San Francisco company. The software is based on the Willow Garage Robot Operating System, or ROS, which is intended to be shared freely.
The Georgia researchers have made their software open source, as well, and shared instructions to make and adapt robot skin.
The research was financed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.