Award-Winning Paper Looks at Evolution of Gentler Robots

July 8, 2008

Hammering a nail without wrecking a thumb is a dicey proposition for most. But imagine having the ability to control a robot at a construction site on the surface of the moon, or welding on the ocean floor.

Chelsea Traille
Dr. Mark Spong
Dr. Mark Spong, incoming dean of the UT Dallas Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, published a paper with his former Ph.D. student, Dr. Peter Hokayem, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Würzburg, Germany, about the history of bilateral teleoperation—or how to control a kinder, gentler robot. The history survey was published in 2006 in Automatica, the flagship journal of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC).

Spong and Hokayem’s history survey was recently named the “Automatica Best Paper” in the survey/tutorial category. They will receive the award at the IFAC Triennial World Congress, which will be held in July in Seoul, South Korea.

Automatica is an outstanding journal and it’s an honor to be recognized with the best survey paper award,” Spong said.

The paper explains that the fine motor skills many take for granted are enormously complex maneuvers for robots, where continuous, uninterrupted feedback between the machine and its operator are vital. A human may not think about how firmly he or she should grasp a crystal vase of flowers, but a robot doing a host of non-repetitive things needs instructions and feedback to flow back and forth constantly.

This system of sending and receiving billions of bytes of data between operator and machine, known as bilateral teleoperation, has enjoyed five decades of research and advancement. Early systems faced delay of information, loss of information and distortion that reduced the machine’s performance, but advancements in technology have vastly improved the ability to remotely handle and control robots engaged in fine motor tasks.

The implications for improving bilateral teleoperation are limited only by imagination and, in some cases, human comfort level. For example, while it is easy to see the value in using robots to weld underwater, build a manned space station on the moon and disable bombs, what about undergoing heart surgery by robotic physician? That may seem far-fetched, but as the give-and-take of data between robots and robot operators improves, so does the vast potential of bilateral teleoperation.


Media contacts: Brandon Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, Brandon.webb@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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Dr. Mark Spong

The above figure, taken from Hokayem and Spong's paper, depicts bilateral teleoperation.

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