The system integrates the pioneering technologies of the three organisations that came together to collaborate: Shadow Robot Co (London and Madrid), a specialist in dexterous robotic hands; SynTouch (California), an expert in tactile sensors; and HaptX (California), which develops haptic feedback gloves. ANA Holdings funded and facilitated the integration as part of the company’s global ‘Avatar’ initiative.

So, how does it work? Well, motion data captured by HaptX Gloves controls the movement of the anthropomorphic dexterous hand produced by Shadow Robot Co. SynTouch’s BioTac sensors are embedded in each fingertip of the robotic hand to collect tactile data that is recreated as haptic feedback by HaptX gloves and transmitted to the user’s hand.

In a demonstration of the system, an operator in California used a haptic glove to control a dexterous robotic hand in London under the guidance of team members from ANA Holdings in Tokyo. As the robot typed on a computer keyboard, tactile sensors on the robot’s fingertips detected the press of each key. Haptic data travelled over a network back to the human operator in California, who received the haptic feedback in real time.

The demonstration also saw the telerobot perform a further range of tasks, from playing Jenga, to building a pyramid of plastic cups, to moving chess pieces on a chess board.

"This achievement by Shadow Robot, SynTouch and HaptX marks a significant milestone towards achieving the mission of Avatar X," says Kevin Kajitani, co-director of ANA Avatar within ANA Holdings. "The prototype paves the way for industrial use, including applications in medicine, construction, transport and space exploration."

Rich Walker, managing director of the Shadow Robot Co, adds: “This teleoperation system lets humans and robots share their sense of touch across the globe; it’s a step ahead in what can be felt and done remotely. We can now deliver remote touch and dexterity in applications like safeguarding people from hazardous tasks, or just doing a job without having to fly there. It’s not touch-typing yet, but we can feel what we touch when we’re typing.”

The last word goes to Dr Jeremy Fishel, co-founder of SynTouch: “We know from psychophysical studies that the sense of touch is essential when it comes to dexterity and manipulation. This is the first time anyone has ever demonstrated a telerobot with such high-fidelity haptics and control, which is very promising and would not have been possible without the great engineers and technologies from this collaboration.”