Building a helping hand

UNCC professor is expert in field of robotics

01/28/2013 8:35 AM

01/28/2013 8:36 AM

Imagine an operating room where a pair of robotic hands – each finger a different tool – hovers over the patient while the surgeon calls the shots from her laptop a thousand miles away.

Imagine strolling the streets of Paris, interacting with the locals through an avatar while you sit with your feet propped up on your desk at home.

It seems like fantasy, but in recent years, the field of robotics has opened possibilities that are crossing the line between fiction and nonfiction.

“More and more, we will see robots used in everyday life,” said Jing Xiao, a professor of Computer Science at UNC Charlotte.

Xiao, a leading expert in robotic motion and haptic interaction, was recently named an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Fellow – a prestigious honor reserved each year for only one-tenth of a percent of the organization’s voting members.

In the technical field, haptic means to include the sense of touch or the feeling of force in a virtual world.

“It’s adding one more dimension to the simulation experience,” said Xiao. “In a virtual world, there’s no real physics. No real force. You only have a computer model.”

It’s the same idea used in today’s computer games. When we feel the vibration of a joystick – acting as a tennis racket – making contact with the ball, that’s providing the sensation of touch and force.

“That’s for fun,” said Xiao. “But it could be for some serious virtual tasks, such as virtual training of surgical operations.”

The automotive industry used to be the leading users of robots, where mechanical arms operated by humans work the assembly lines.

Not only can robots alleviate monotonous, repetitive tasks, though, they can also be used to perform dangerous ones.

“It’s incredibly useful for search-and-rescue missions and in times of disaster,” said Xiao. “During the nuclear disaster in Japan, they couldn’t send people inside. The robots went inside to collect data and observe the situation.”

In the past several years, the medical field has seen more uses for robotics. “It’s a big success story for robotics,” said Xiao, who has watched surgeons operate robots that, in turn, operate on patients.

“With robot-assisted surgical systems, the surgeon can perform surgery more effectively and comfortably,” said Xiao. “It’s also much clearer for the surgeon to see what’s inside the body, and the robot operation is more precise.”

Someday, robotics may enable teleoperations to take place over the Internet in different regions of the world.

“The main difficultly is the communication delay of the signal,” said Xiao. Experts are working to create programs that will equip robots with the know-how to figure out the sequences of an operation if the circumstances should change.

For those who feel anxiety rising in their chests at the thought of an existence with robots, Xiao reassures that humans still have the upper hand.

“Robots are for assisting people rather than replacing people. People need to either operate or guide the robots or work with them,” she said. “Autonomy is still quite difficult. The environment has a lot of uncertainty.”

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