Biomedical Engineering students at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a robotic arm that can find objects by touch.

In a paper published this month in the International Journal of Robotics Research, the Georgia Tech group described a robot arm that was able to reach into a cluttered environment and use “touch,” along with computer vision, to complete exacting tasks.

The Georgia Tech researchers have produced a robot arm that can reach and then use software to control its sense of touch, making it possible to find specific objects in a collection or area.

Dr. Kemp said the researchers were able to achieve success, both with a robot and with digital simulations, after a relatively small series of attempts, and using a simple set of primitive robot behaviors.

The algorithms used gave the arm qualities that seemed to mimic human behavior. For example, the robot was able to bend, compress and slide objects. Also, given parameters designed to limit how hard it could press on an object, the arm was able to pivot around objects automatically.

The arm was designed to essentially have “springs” at its joints, making it “compliant,” a term roboticists use to define components that are more flexible and less precise than conventional robotic mechanisms. Compliance has become increasingly important as a new generation of safer robots has emerged.

While the development of this technology is primarily aimed at robots working in a “human” environment–an environment filled with clutter to sift through–it could have incredible applications in the world of factory automation. With the ability to choose an object by touch, robots will not be as limited by human error as the can be currently. Manufacturing error could be reduced by the robot since it would be able to tell whether it has picked up the correct part, increasing efficiency in the factory.

To read more about robots with a sense of touch, head over to the New York Times.