The future of robotics is now
Besides the futuristic notions about an electronic golem, it seems that robots are not a long way off anymore. Some even claim they are among us already.
One of them is Ákos Dömötör from OptoForce (read more here). The Hungarian team works in the field of tactile sensing and aim to make robots feel, so to say. OptoForce just launched a sensor adapter kit for BarrettHand. The mechanical fingers can be equipped with OptoForce sensors that make it possible for the robot arm to apply pressure on objects held and to increase the grip if necessary (view a video here).
Inventures.eu to caught up on recent developments in the Hungarian company and talked with Akos about the future of robotic startups.
Do you feel that there is a great competition in this (startup) area?
There are a lot of interesting technologies on the market, often provided by smaller companies. All of these sensors have their own advantages and disadvantages and so we are not competing directly most of the time, but it is right that there is some overlap. In most of the time though, the biggest competition we have is from one of the incumbent technologies.
You decided to specialise in the area of tactile sensing. What application possibilities are there?
The small silicon sensors are dust and waterproof, applicable from -40°C to +85°C; Photo credit: OptoForce
There are two main directions in tactile sensing: Human interface devices, when we use the sensors to control a machine and Machine tactile sensing, where we want a robot to feel the weight, shape or the texture of objects it touches. As for the first one the biggest current challenge is how to build devices that don’t wear out as fast, and yet they are very sensitive. In machine tactile sensing the biggest challenges are in how to measure the weight of the objects and thus secure a safe grip, how to recognise what material the object is made of and how to build something small and affordable.
Besides the difficulties in this sector, what are the advantages of your sensors? What makes your product different from comparable?
We have two main applications that we serve with basically the same technology: tactile sensing and load sensing. […] Our sensors can be built to be highly deformable and so their shape can fit any object – much like the flesh on our own fingers. In load sensings, our biggest advantages are that our sensors are more rugged than traditional strain-gauge sensors.
Since you just launched an adaptor for BarrettHand – how is the feedback so far?
We originally created the BarrettHand adaptor to show our capabilities in adaptive gripping. We got tremendous interest – Wired.co.uk featured our sensors as well a few days ago. What we have seen was that the launch of this adaptor and the videos that we shot with it actually increased the interest in the standard sensors. People contact us working on sporting equipment and exoskeletons even more, as they have seen one application, they can now imagine it easier how to fit the sensors into their special needs.
From your perspective, where does the robotic market go? Is there an area especially fit for robotics?
The robot hand can hold a glass while being filled due to the reaction of the sensors; Photo credit: OptoForce
The other day I read an article claiming that we already have a lot of robots around us that we refuse to call robots and instead call something else. E.g. Would you call the self-driving cars robots? They clearly are, but we don’t look at them this way. Robotics is integrating into our everyday life in the form of smart air conditioning systems and household devices and we don’t even notice. There is a clear trend in building more and more sensors into everything around us so that they can react and change the environment in an intelligent matter – and so it is getting harder and harder to distinguish robotics from industrial automation, logistics, household devices and so on. If you are interested in where the “fancy” humanoid robots and robotic arms will be used next, I would bet on supporting factory operators in assembly tasks. That is currently the next frontier in automating factories.
Is this trend also visible in CEE? Do you cooperate with other CEE robotic startups?
We are in close co-operation with two startups from the region that specialise in rehabilitation as our sensitive, rugged and yet relatively soft sensors are very useful in this area. The technologies they use are very close to robotics in a sense that they are working with computer controlled systems with tons of sensors. But it is an interesting topic, because we actually work more with companies around the World than with the ones from our own region.
What are you plans for the near future?
We are currently in negotiations about further investments. As for now we have enough cash for the near future, but with more resources we could speed up the development of some of our upcoming sensors.
Photo credit: OptoForce; http://bit.ly/1sK92RDAbout OptoForce:
The startup was founded in 2012 as a spin-off from the robotics and bionics lab of the Pazmany Peter University in Budapest. OptoForce mainly focuses on tactile sensors for robots and in the field of industrial automation. They won the Award for Successful Enterprises from the Hungarian Government earlier this year. Moreover, ETH Zurich presented their 4-legged robot with OptoForce sensors in the feet at ICRA and the Dynamic Walking conference.