It may seem uncomfortably close to science fiction, but robots are moving ever nearer to having humanlike abilities to smell, feel and see their surroundings, allowing them to operate more independently and perform some of the dangerous, dirty and dull jobs people don’t want to do.
They can “smell” gas leaks, conduct underwater surveillance and even sort boxes by shape and color and toss them into the appropriate warehouse bin. Advances in sensor technology and software allow these machines to make split-second decisions without human masters overseeing them about how to follow a scent trail or where to go to next.
“They are gaining human capabilities, whether it’s smell, or touch or recognizing our voices,” said Daniel H. Wilson, a PhD in robotics and the author of “Robopocalypse” … “If they are going to solve human problems, they will have to have human abilities. Those are things that robots will have to understand if they play a role in our lives.”
Until now, robots have had to navigate with small infrared sensors that keep them from bumping into things. Some have relied on video cameras that send images to human operators. But a new generation of robots is gaining the ability to understand voices, see objects with the same depth perception as humans and use grasping arms that have dexterity close to that of humans.
…Most robots with advanced sensing abilities are still in the experimental stage. More than toys but not yet tools, they work well in the laboratory but can’t yet handle real-world situations.