With an understanding of biomechanics, engineers can develop biologically-inspired robots with improved and enhanced capabilities over traditional robots, which are—how shall we say—robotic! Biologically-inspired robots have greater mobility and flexibility than traditional robots and often possess sensory abilities.
Biorobotic technologies are often utilized to provide assistance to accommodate a deficiency—either as fully-functioning robots or highly advanced prosthetics; the latter represents one area in which neural engineering and biorobotics intersect as both disciplines are required in order to first signal and then generate movement. Such devices may also be used to measure the state of disease, track progress or offer interactive training experiences that can speed recovery from an injury or stroke (see rehabilitation engineering).
Biorobotics encompasses a diverse array of disciplines with a myriad of applications. Researchers in Italy, for example, are developing artificial sensing skin that can detect pressure as contact is made with an object. Tactile sensors are important not only for self-standing robots and limb prostheses but as a means of restoring the sense of touch to diabetics with peripheral neuropathy by mimicking sensations normally gleaned by fingerpads and feet. This one application of biorobotics requires contributions from biomedical engineers studying tissue engineering, neural engineering, biomimetics and BioMEMS.
Italian scientists are also exploring the potential for early diagnosis of autism by monitoring sensory-motor development through mechatronic-sensorized toys, such as rattles with force and contact sensors.
Biorobotics is being used to help train surgeons and dentists using virtual environments that speed the learning process by facilitating epiphanies, or “Aha” moments. It is also being used to assist in actual surgeries, allowing for more precise and less invasive interventions. Endoscopic robots at the tip of a probe can, for example, remove a polyp during a colonoscopy. And mechatronic handheld tools allow surgeons to manipulate their hands at the macro level while affecting similar responses from a mechanical device operating at the micro level. One day, this could even lead to “cellular surgery.”
Key to surgical robotics is the sense of touch, or haptics. Many researchers are exploring how to enhance haptic perception and feedback to allow a surgeon to virtually palpate and squeeze tissue and sense how deep to make an incision.
As robots become more sophisticated and embedded in our lives, Human-Robot Interaction & Coordination (HRI&C) has emerged as a sub-discipline that focuses on the behavior and place of robots in society.