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A robot in your ear?

  • Name
    Dorothy Hardy
    COG-MHEAR Research Programme Manager

What have a new starter receptionist in a fur hat and a spy that can get into rooms without opening doors got in common? They are both robots that Prof Adam Stokes talked about recently when he met the COG-MHEAR teams. Adam is based at the University of Edinburgh and works on bio-inspired engineering, including robots.

So could robots work as hearing aids? This is actually the idea we are working on already, because a robot is simply a machine that takes in data and acts on it, which is what the COG-MHEAR hearing aid will be doing: selecting and processing sound to select the speech that you want to hear.

But how could we improve the design using the latest techniques and materials that are used in soft robotics? A soft robot is made from compliant materials which can mimic and be compatible with biological systems. Adam showed video of a soft robot that can carry sensors and crawl under a door using a wave-like movement. Even smaller balloon shaped robots could inflate or deflate when needed. This change in volume is excellent for systems such as stents: tubes that make sure that passageways stay open, such as a stent placed in an artery to ensure that blood can pass through.

Even smaller systems include tiny, thin tubes that can move independently and together. Maybe these could create arrays acting like cilia inside the cochlear: groups of tiny hair-like structures that help in the detection and processing of sound. Robots that incorporate biological material are also possible, so that systems can be designed for safe and comfortable use on and within the human body.

Adam’s team specialise in moving technology on from systems that have been shown to work, to commercially viable products. Robots designed to inspect offshore renewable energy systems were made to fly, swim and crawl. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the team designed a type of face mask that could be made to fit individual faces by using scanning and 3D printing techniques. This helped ensure comfort and correct fit.

Interaction between humans and robots will be one of the challenges in creation of intelligent hearing aids. But the wealth of materials and technology that are now available and already used in soft robotics are a great resource. The question is simply which materials and processes, and how they can best be used?

Meanwhile, look out for the receptionist in a fur hat at the National Robotarium that opened in October 2022: The National Robotarium - Heriot-Watt University