Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 00:48 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 00:48 | SYDNEY

Haptics: Can you feel it?

29 June 2009 10:30

While I’m sold on the need to understand the human dimension to conflict, I’m equally convinced that the military has to be an ‘early adopter’ of new technology. One area that has accelerated at a truly awesome rate is the field of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and the counters to them. Thanks to IEDs and landmines, untold hectares of the world are rendered too dangerous to inhabit, but there are new ways to come to grips with this problem.

Haptics is a technology that can keep munitions disposal crews away from such lethal devices while leaving human judgement firmly in control. Haptics applies tactile sensation via computer applications, so that users receive feedback in the form of felt sensations. Touch screens are the most familiar haptics application in daily life, but research and limited fielding has had successes in not one, but multiple degrees of freedom – that is, the operator can ‘sense’ touch in three dimensions remotely.

Until fairly recently, actually picking up objects remotely has been limited to a two-hand grasp (a bit like Frankenstein’s monster), but as ABC viewers might have seen, some bright lads from Geelong have developed a lightweight way to singlehandedly manipulate objects with an opposable grip in a virtual environment, while also feeling the forces generated by that environment. 

This is a key development for the remote handling of highly pressure-sensitive devices like mines or IEDs, which is why Defence’s science & technology organisation has awarded a major grant to further R&D in this area.

The related domain of telerobotics is already doing great service in microsurgery, but adding a touch more ‘touch’ to the application of such technology can only improve our ability to deactivate or render safe IEDs, land mines or other explosives, rather than have a remotely controlled robot simply carry them somewhere safe or place a controlled demolition charge. 

Widespread fielding of haptic technology could have a significant impact on the ways countries provide foreign aid and humanitarian assistance, by helping to clear explosive hazards in a safe, controlled manner. Given the proliferation of such devices, anything that can avert casualties is a worthy investment.

Watch – or rather, feel – this space!

Photo courtesy of Gizmodo.