Real World Applications Real World Applications


May 8, 2014

V ijay Kumar, the UPS Foundation Professor with appointments in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania, Computer and Information Science, and Electrical and Systems Engineering says there are three types of tasks robots could perform to provide valuable relief for humans: those that are dull, dangerous, and dirty.

Also on that list are tasks that require exceptional stability and dexterity, or need to be performed in spaces too small and delicate for the human hand.

“I believe any time you have big leaps in technology, you essentially change the way we work and what jobs humans are good for,” Kumar says. “So you could ask the question, ‘Well, with robots, could it be that there’s a whole bunch of things that are no longer profitable for humans or that humans might get eliminated from?’ One thing is certainly clear—robots change the kinds of things that humans are good at and are valued for. My dream is that eventually with robots, you only have to work five hours a week, and you spend 35 hours doing things that benefit you, benefit the world, and change the world.”

Mark Yim, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, says the key to creating truly useful robots is recognizing robots’ potential strengths rather than making them copy tasks at which humans already excel.

“Computers are very good at recording data for very long periods of time; people are not good at that,” Yim says. “If we can exploit those types of things, and not trying to get robots to do things they’re not good at, then we can actually get robots to do useful things in a much shorter period of time.”

“My dream is that eventually with robots, you only have to work five hours a week, and you spend 35 hours doing things that benefit you, benefit the world, and change the world.”
- Vijay Kumar

In the Field

One area in which robotic technology has already proven useful is surgery—in everything from head and neck procedures to urology. But the precision offered by commonly used robotic surgical tools involves a trade-off with a sensory modality that surgeons often rely on: the feel of the tissues on which they are operating.

Katherine Kuchenbecker, an associate professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and Computer and Information Science, leads a group within the GRASP Lab that focuses on haptics, the science of understanding and improving interaction with the physical world through the sense of touch. Her group works with computer-controlled, electro-mechanical systems that allow humans to feel and manipulate environments, both real and virtual.

Haptic interfaces

Katherine Kuchenbecker, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics and computer and information science, leads a group within the GRASP Lab that focuses on haptics, the science of understanding and improving interaction with the physical world through the sense of touch. In this video from the PopTech 2011 conference, she explains her research about the design and control of robotic systems that enable a user to touch virtual objects and distant environments as though they were real and within reach.

Through research in the GRASP Lab, Kuchenbecker and her team developed VerroTouch, a system that adds haptic feedback of tool vibrations to minimally invasive surgical instruments such as the da Vinci Surgical System.

“The idea is that your hands and your skin can feel many types of sensations, not just forces,” Kuchenbecker says. “Everyone else had always worked on adding force feedback to robotic surgery, but it’s very difficult to measure forces when an instrument deep inside [an incision] is pushing or pulling. Instruments have to be sterilized and replaced, so it’s not easy to put that kind of sensor on a surgical instrument. But we came up with a solution by [using] a different type of sensor.”

Using tiny microelectrical mechanical system-based accelerometers, VerroTouch measures the vibrations of the surgical instruments, mimicking the functionality of certain mechanoreceptors in human skin.

It’s technology that Kuchenbecker says allows experienced surgeons to focus on clinically relevant aspects of surgery.

“The vibration feedback that we are able to provide is so simple; it’s not very expensive, and it’s highly effective, which is the kind of improvements to technology that we need in medicine right now. The costs of care are high and there are a lot of people that need surgery,” Kuchenbecker says. “Helping surgeons deliver better surgery is my dream as an engineer.”

Noel Williams, director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS), has been using robotics in bariatric and weight-loss surgery since 2006. He says technology like the VerroTouch could allow doctors to more safely perform minimally invasive surgery on patients who are considered morbidly obese.

“[Without haptics], if I’m looking through the camera as I’m operating, and I pull on the stomach, I have to know when to stop because if I pull too hard, it’ll rip. I won’t feel it ripping, but I’ll see it ripping,” Williams says. “Introducing haptics into the whole concept of plastic surgery … when you’re operating, you can actually feel resistance.”

During his years as a Penn Medicine student, undergraduate Engineering alumnus Ernest “Ted” Gomez completed a master’s thesis in translational research in Kuchenbecker’s lab to build a model of Williams’ weight loss operations. Gomez found that residents who experienced haptic feedback during simulation training picked up skills more quickly than those trained without VerroTouch.

“If we can help surgeons deliver better surgery, that is my dream as an engineer.”
- Katherine Kuchenbecker, associate professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics and computer and information science

“Human hands have a certain size and limited degrees of freedom of motion that we can move in, but there are surgical problems and human pathologies that just can’t be fixed with the size of our human hands,” says Gomez, who is now an otorhinolaryngology resident at UPHS. “I think that’s where robotic surgery obviously became helpful, especially for us in ear, nose, and throat surgery. We’re working in really small spaces.”

Kuchenbecker’s work has also found its place in dentistry. Working with Margrit Maggio, director of Operative Dentistry and the Advanced Simulation Laboratory at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine, she’s developed haptics techniques to help dental students better distinguish the types of tooth tissue they touch in a patient’s mouth, leading to more accurate diagnoses.

“What’s really important in dentistry is to be able to feel— you feel as you’re working on a tooth, when you’re in a healthy tooth, when you’re in a tooth that has a cavity, what that feels like to a bunch of different instruments,” Maggio says. “I can lecture on that, and I can show students pictures, but they learn on plastic teeth, and then they get to a patient third-year, but I wanted to close that loop.”

She connected with Kuchenbecker, who was able to create an instrument that would play back vibrations that corresponded with Maggio’s instructional videos.

“It’s not so much about providing sensation while you’re treating the patient because the sensations are there—the dentists touching the tooth can feel it,” Kuchenbecker says. “It’s more that, they don’t know how to interpret those sensations, so we need to give them practice before they work on a real patient to help them calibrate and figure out and learn what are the distinguishing characteristics. So we modified those same sensors that we use on the robotic surgery system to fit on dental instruments.”

“Are robots going to take over the world? I wish I had to worry about that when I did my work because that would mean we’re so close.”
- Vijay Kumar

The Future

As robots have become more commonplace and helpful—especially doing those dull, dangerous, and dirty tasks, from washing floors to dismantling bombs—many people have expressed concern about their expanded roles in everyday life. At best, skeptics raise eyebrows. At worst, they panic about robots’ potential to invade humans’ privacy and take their jobs.

But to that end, Kumar laughs. The technology is nowhere near as vast or complex for robot domination to even be a twinkle in the roboticist’s eye.

DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials

Penn roboticists take on the world

In late December, teams from around the world descended on Florida’s Homestead Miami Speedway with millions of dollars of high-performance machinery in tow. But instead of the racecars that usually compete on the track, this was a battle between 16 of the most advanced robots on the planet. The event that brought these machines together was the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials, a competition designed to push the envelope in terms of robots that could autonomously serve in emergency and disaster scenarios that would be dangerous for humans.

Full Story

“Are robots going to take over the world? I wish I had to worry about that when I did my work because that would mean we’re so close,” Kumar says. “But we’re nowhere close to that. There’s a big difference between getting Watson to beat humans at ‘Jeopardy!’ and building machines that are actually smarter than humans.”

Yim says he’s seen that fear reflected in his students. After showing them a video of a robot that was capable of reassembling itself after falling apart, students’ reaction was collectively in awe: “You can’t kill it.”


Mark Yim’s ModLab develops relatively simple robots that can quickly self-assemble into more complex configurations. This trait could prove useful when robots are deployed to places with unknown or unstable terrain, because they are able to reconfigure their bodies to tackle unpredictable obstacles on the fly. This video shows some of the capabilities of CKbot, a chain-style modular robot.

“But we are so far from that,” Yim says. “It took forever to get that thing to work and after it did that once, and we never did anything more with it because it was hard to get it to do that— to get robots to do anything. Right now, we’re trying to get the robots to do something useful as opposed to just something simple and silly.”

In fact, Eduardo Glandt, dean of SEAS, says the current economic and political climate in the United States has created the ideal foundation for robots to help humanity flourish.

“The recent renaissance of manufacturing in the country, and with President Obama and the government making big efforts to revive what was thought to have been lost to Asian countries, the way that we can impact manufacturing in the U.S. is through robotics,” Glandt says. “It’s through intelligence … intelligent buildings … intelligent transportation—intelligence in everything. The American contribution to any technology has to be intelligence. And we find ourselves at the center of this intelligence, so we’re lucky.”

About this project


ROBOTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA was produced and developed by the following puny humans from the Office of University Communications:

  • MATT CALLAHAN, web developer
  • HEATHER A. DAVIS, manager, internal communications
  • REBECCA ELIAS ABBOUD, video producer
  • GREG JOHNSON, editor
  • EVAN LERNER, science writer
  • STEVEN MINICOLA, director of web and visual strategy
  • SCOTT SPITZER, photographer
  • MARIA ZANKEY, staff writer

* with SPECIAL THANKS to the staff and faculty of the GRASP Lab.