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One Bite At A Time

Robotics researchers have come up with a practical solution to help those who are ill, elderly or differently abled.
Team BT   New Delhi     Print Edition: May 19, 2019
One Bite At A Time
Illustration by Ajay Thakuri

If there is one field of technology that requires acceleration, it is assistive robotics. There are many ethical considerations to wade through in other areas of robotics research, but the one that would meet little opposition from watchdogs is assistive technology that helps people who need it and make their everyday life manageable or even bearable.

Siddhartha S. Srinivasa, the Boeing Endowed Professor at Paul Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, is developing a robot to help those who are ill, elderly or differently abled and cannot feed themselves. Being dependent on others for such a basic function often leads to an acute sense of helplessness and loss of dignity. However, a specially designed assistive dexterous arm, or ADA, is set to address this pain point.

When activated, this versatile automaton simulates human motions to identify, pick up and deliver bite-sized food items with the help of its special fork and uses different techniques depending on the nature of the food. ADA is further guided by its on-arm camera and tactile sensor and can be fitted to a wheelchair. The research was published in a series of papers and also in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. If it can be mass produced, such a robot could relieve caregivers of routine tasks and help them focus more on critical aspects.

Creating a feeding robot had not been easy. The research group at the Paul Allen School thoroughly studied how people ate and took into account all nuances so that ADA could help even when a person eats awkwardly. The team carefully measured every mealtime movement such as how people use their forks to pick up a morsel of food and quickly found that there was no fixed way of doing it.

Everything depends on several factors, including the nature of the food item, the shape and size of the piece and even its position. For instance, a cube would be picked up and eaten differently than a piece of carrot. The data gathered was fed to ADA and it was then repeatedly trained to skewer pieces of food with its arm and take it to the recipient's mouth. Even the angle at which it was done depended on the type of food and other things. Using cameras also added to the ability to get the task done just right. The outcome can be seen in an online video that features how the arm feeds different types of food from a plate.

Another independent research project managed to train a robotic system to use tools and leverage novel objects for improvising. As per MIT Technology Review, Chelsea Finn, a researcher at Google Brain, and Sergey Levine, an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, created a unique set-up - a combination of a robotic arm, a computer connected to a very large neural network and a camera. Then the robo had to observe plenty of human movements and behaviour to understand how to use an object even in a new situation. While the robot could use simple things such as a broom and dustpan and a duster, it also managed to use a longish bottle to sweep the floor when the cleaning implements were not available.

Golden Rule to Fix Foggy Glass

We experience extreme weather conditions throughout the year, be it a blazing summer, a humid monsoon or a freezing winter (at times, intense air conditioning will freeze you as well). A sudden drop in temperature or rise in humidity will always lead to condensation on glass surfaces. Normally, we are not too worried about it, but a sudden fogging up of eyewear, car windshields, rear-view mirrors and car windows due to temperature and humidity changes can be outright dangerous. The solution? Catch a sunbeam with some gold. Well, almost. Scientist Christopher Walker and his research colleagues at ETH Zurich have developed a coating to reduce fogging significantly; and what it relies upon is sunlight.

The coating used is nanometres thick and made up of gold nanoparticles embedded in non-conductive titanium oxide. "Our coating absorbs the infrared component of sunlight along with a small part of the visible sunlight and converts the light into heat," said Walker, a doctoral student in ETH Professor Dimos Poulikakos' group and lead author of the study. Consequently, the surface will heat up by 3-4 degree Celsius and prevent fogging. As per the researchers, the durable coating lasts much longer than anti-fog sprays and cleans up the cloudy surface four times faster.

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