Some of the world’s most important advances in robotics are happening here in Australia.
While interest and investment pour into the global robotics industry, there are no sensors in the market that can measure friction.
“There’s lots of research but it’s not commercially available,” said Dr Heba Khamis, CEO and Co-founder of Contactile.
This means that robots can grasp a wine glass but cannot determine how much force to apply to an oily wine glass versus a clean wine glass.
However Dr Khamis and her team at Contactile are revolutionising robotics by creating a world-first tactile sensor that gives robots a human sense of touch.
“We came to this through a research project,” said Dr Khamis.
“We were studying human tactile physiology and our interest was in understanding how when we touch something we know exactly what forces to apply.
“We were inspired to create a sensor that does the same thing. That led to robots and we got to a point when we realised that this was commercially valuable.”
Dr Khamis has a formal background in research and teaching, but she finds that similarities between academia and business have given her the right skills to start a business.
“Research is very variable. You’re presented with different challenges every day.
“I think entrepreneurship is also research – it’s just research in a different field. The research question is: have I got a business model that works. The business model does not just include the product, it’s also the customers, market, etc.
“However the way you find answers is different. In research you perform physical experiments, but in entrepreneurship you have to be talking to people to get answers.”
This inquisitive approach has led Dr Khamis and her team to create and commercialise one of the world’s most sophisticated tactile sensors.
However as the application of Contactile’s sensors broadens, more challenges arise.
For instance when these sensors are used on prosthetic hands, researchers are still trying to find the optimal way to deliver feedback from the sensor to the person.
“The main challenge lies in the communication channels between the sensor and the user.”
Once a sensor recognises that the user is pressing too hard or too softly, the next issue is communicating this to the user.
“How do you tell them? It needs to be somewhat natural. It can’t be a flashing light because they would need to be looking. It can’t be audio because you don’t want to draw attention to the fact.”
Although these deep tech products seem removed from everyday life today, Dr Khamis believes that deep tech will soon permeate almost everything we do.
“Deep tech is valuable because you’re not just developing a flash in a pan, it’s something that’s going to have far-reaching applications. It has implications beyond the application it’s designed for.
“For instance after commercialising quantum computing, the developments along the way will also have so many more applications that you can pursue.
“It’s slowly becoming more recognised as a necessity. The future, whether we like it or not, is going to encompass more deep tech solutions.”