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Robotic rubdown: New robo-masseuse could make its way into your home

Massage robot demo

Robots are all about automating certain pain points, whether that’s Roombas carrying out the vacuuming in our home or Starship Technologies-style delivery robots grabbing takeout food and bringing it to us wherever we happen to be at the time. A new home massage robot developed by researchers from the U.K.’s University of Plymouth takes this idea of pain points quite literally — by promising to rub and knead them out of your shoulders and back whenever and however you require.

The team built their robot masseuse using the KUKA LBR iiwa robotic platform. This lightweight robot arm boasts several useful qualities, including the ability to be easily taught motions, along with joint torque sensors that allow it to detect contact immediately and reduce the levels of force and speed instantly.

“Its position and compliance control enables it to handle delicate components without creating crushing and shearing hazards,” its creators claim. Since crushing and shearing aren’t qualities most of us would look for in a good massage (crushing is arguable; shearing is not), it’s a perfect choice for the University of Plymouth’s plans. The team augmented the robot with a special massaging ball attached to its end effector.

Robot masseuse setup 1
Chunxu Li/University of Plymouth

When will you be able to buy a robot masseuse?

“The idea is that we plan the motion in the horizontal plane by physically teaching the robot to do massaging tasks and apply a force in the Z-direction to make it … a hybrid force/position control scheme,” Chunxu Li, lecturer at Plymouth’s School of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics, told Digital Trends. “The force in Z-direction is like a spring, [allowing the robot to] be able to perform massaging tasks after only [one] teaching without knowing a body shape. … If the force sensor of the robotic arm detects a force value we defined in advance, the entire system will stop working. In addition, the stiffness value of each joint of the robotic arm can be set in the interactive interface to ensure the output of force. This can be further developed in the future by developing an interface based on machine vision.”

While there’s plenty of cause for concern about the idea of robots taking human jobs (or, rather, the people who buy these robots using them to replace humans), it’s unlikely that thieywill be able to do everything a trained masseuse can do. A ball-based end effector won’t compare to the dexterity of human hands for every massage technique. However, it may just prove good enough to find a place in the homes of massage fans.

Are there any plans to commercialize it? “Yes, this is what I am doing now,” Li said. “Currently, our team [is working closely] with a Chinese company for this purpose.”

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Neurorobotics.

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