Texas Tech University

Professors Receive NSF Grant to Improve and Increase the Dexterity of Robotic Applications

Amanda Bowman

August 29, 2018

Assistant professor Burak Aksak and professor Richard Gale are working on the project.

Cartoon classic, “The Jetsons,” showed the world what life could be like in the future: spaceships for vehicles, holograms, quirky inventions and robot maids named Rosie.

While cartoonists were letting their imaginations run wild with speculation in the 1960s, they weren't too far off with some of their theories. In the 21st century, there certainly is the use of holograms and unique inventions. Robots, however, haven't quite reached Rosie status.

Burak Aksak and Richard Gale
Burak Aksak and Richard Gale

Cue two Texas Tech University professors who hope to bring the use of robots and robotic applications to a new era. Burak Aksak, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, and Richard Gale, a professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, received a three-year, $288,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore robotic enhancements.

“The idea is humans, specifically our fingertips, are equipped with very sophisticated touch sensors called tactile sensors,” Aksak said. “Robotics has had a tremendous amount of advancement, mostly because of vision sensors, but tactile sensing has lagged behind for a long time. Tactile sensing is what affects the dexterity of robots. They are not able to open a door, insert a key, things like that. Richard and I came up with an idea to create these flexible tactile sensors that have a very high spatial resolution, meaning it's an array; not just one point of contact, but many.

“At each point of contact, you can determine how much force is being applied and where. We're planning to do this with materials that change resistance when they experience force.”

People may worry that, as advancements in robotics are made, the need for human workers will be wiped out. Gale doesn't believe people should entertain that idea, and thinks robots can be beneficial for performing menial tasks.

“I think the whole point is that this technology makes it easier for robots to work together with humans,” Gale said. “There's a synergy we haven't realized yet that will come out of that. For example, in an automobile accident, a robot could quickly and effectively figure out who needs the most attention now and who might just be a little shaken up. The whole triage function could be assumed by the robot.”

Aksak plans on making this project work by using piezoresistive and piezoelectric materials, solids that change resistance and generate electrical potential in response to applied mechanical stress. Gale said Aksak's advancements in this area are what make this project that much more impressive and important.

“Burak is being generous and giving me some credit with this project,” Gale said. “It's his idea. But I did want to emphasize this fundamental aspect of his work in the last two years or so. Piezoelectric sensors have been around for a long time, and one of the big problems is their mechanical properties are not very good. They're stiff and brittle. If you want to sense more delicately or at lower frequencies, it's difficult.

“What he's done is come up with a configuration in which the compliant, or sensing member, can be made out of anything: wood, metal, silicone rubber and even plastic.”

Aksak will design the structures and sensing elements, while Gale is tasked with figuring out an array to process the data.

“My previous experience includes micromechanical arrays, but we're going the other way with this project,” Gale said. “We were feeding a signal in, causing the arrays to behave in some particular way rather than sensing the way the mechanical arrays were being acted on and trying to make sense of that. I think this is really a breakthrough technology.”

One major emphasis Aksak and Gale mentioned was the multidisciplinary aspect to the project, especially for students.

“It's a really good experience for the students because most of the really interesting work being done now is multidisciplinary, where you have to talk between electrical, mechanical, industrial and chemical engineering,” Gale said. “We are always interested in identifying undergraduates who are interested in pursuing graduate school. I teach the senior lab in electrical engineering, so I tell the students we might put a project out next semester and see who bites on it.”

Aksak hopes his and Gale's work leads to bigger innovations in the future.

“We're hoping this is going to lead to something where you not only have sensing, but you also can actuate and harvest energy at the same time,” Aksak said. “All these systems we're talking about lend themselves to perhaps, in the future, something big or something more innovative. These are just the building blocks for the ultimate goal of multifunctional self-sufficient surfaces.”