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The Quest for a Robot that Works Well With Humans

Professor Jochen Steil with one of the CogIMON humanoids. (Photo credit: Bielefeld University.)
Professor Jochen Steil with one of the CogIMON humanoids. (Photo credit: Bielefeld University.)

Researchers at Bielefeld University are working on robots designed to work in tandem with humans. The project is called Cognitive Compliant Interaction in Motion, or CogIMON. Led by professor Jochen Steil of BU, the project will involve six international partners and have a budget of $7 million Euros.

“The goal of CogIMon is to teach robots to understand the forces during the movement of objects and how to appropriately react to changes in weight or contact with the object while carrying it,” Steil said in a statement.
A classic example for moving objects can be seen when a human and a robot or two robots carry a table together. In this action, it is important to adjust one’s forces: the one carrying leads the way, the other follows. When changing who leads and who follows, it is necessary that one is able to predict their partner’s motions and adjust their own movements accordingly. Humans have no problem estimating the weight of an object, because they can see how heavy it is based on the effort exterted by another person lifting the object. This makes it easy for humans to adjust their own effort while lifting in unison. But robots currently struggle with this.

“Understanding active forces is a big challenge because it entails complex, highly skilled interaction that combines abilities from a number of different areas. Perception, the ability to move objects, controlling flexibility and body motion are a few examples,” says Steil. At this time, there is little theory to help explain how robots can move objects together with humans. For this reason, project partners in Italy and the Great Britain are conducting basic research using interaction experiments with humans. Meanwhile, Steil’s group is developing new controlling and programming methods for the robots.

To research human interaction with humanoid robots, researchers will work with a larger version of the humanoid robot prototype, COMAN (COmpliant huMANoid platform). COMAN was developed at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genua.  The researchers hope COMAN will learn how to interpret human body language.

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