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Robots, the next generation

Engineering and biology meet to craft robots with more natural, adaptable and dextrous movements

Swiftly picking up objects, pouring a glass of water, buckling a belt and manipulating many other random everyday objects could soon be part of normal robotic mechanics.

Dr. Soo Jeon, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo, is working towards making that possible.

Dr. Jeon is trained in control engineering, a discipline that applies control theories to design systems with desired behaviours. While completing his PhD, he worked with a robot manufacturing company in Japan, where he used a variety of sensing technologies such as miniature motion sensors, visual cameras and position sensors at each joint to improve the motion control of industrial robots.

The work inspired him to think about what could be done further to advance motion-control systems and set him on the path to enable robots to have more human-like dexterity.

Dr. Jeon understood that, when it comes to more dexterous manipulation tasks, the traditional approaches to motion control relying mainly on the position or trajectory of an object do not work. Human-like dexterity needs human-like processing, which can incorporate multiple points of highly changeable sensory data.

"To help robots perform these very different tasks, we need new paradigms of designing controllers, new ways to model the kind of delicate sensing used by humans in daily manipulation tasks."

The solution is what he calls a "bio-inspired engineering approach" that pairs his expertise in control engineering and sensor technologies with concepts and theories from neurobiology.

Dr. Jeon's first step was to integrate tactile sensors into robotic fingers and arms. Inspired by biological touch, tactile sensors are used to acquire information about the properties of objects in direct physical contact with the technology in this case, the robot. By tapping into the data provided by tactile sensors, Dr. Jeon is making it easier for robots to manoeuvre the objects in question rather than relying solely on the position or trajectory of the object.

With NSERC funding, Dr. Jeon has since expanded his research, teaming up with neuroscientists from the University of Waterloo to find out what sensory data are needed by humans to complete simple tasks and how the data are processed.

Another dimension of the research involves motor memory. "One of the reasons why humans have such superior dexterity is because of our motor vocabulary. Once we learn how to do something, like riding a bike or playing tennis, we never forget it," he explains.

His next step is to understand motor memory as a way to begin thinking about how to implement this function of motor control at the robotic level.

Dr. Jeon's research could not only place Canada at the forefront of robotics research, but also lead to a number of applications, including agile manufacturing, home automation, medical prosthetics, rehabilitation engineering and a surge of new technologies to support the welfare of aging populations.

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