Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Day in a Life of a Haptic Engineer

Recently students from Seneca College reached out to us to learn more about 'Haptics'. For future engineers interested in this growing discipline, the Q&A below gives a great snapshot of what professional Haptics engineers might be working on.

Q: How would you describe Haptics to someone who is unfamiliar with this technology?

A: Here is a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that I think will more or less answer this question:

‘The word haptic is derived from the Greek word 'haptikos' which translates to ”relating to or involving the sense of touch”. In order to have the sense of touch from the surrounding environment, one is equipped with tactile receptors as well as the kinesthesia. Tactile receptors in the skin are to sense texture, pressure, temperature, roughness and vibration while the kinesthesia is a sense mediated by receptors located in muscles, tendons, and ligaments and stimulated by bodily movements and external tensions/forces. Haptics technology is rendering of perceptual reality through stimulating the sense of touch by programmable machine made forces. Haptics is finding a wide and still emerging range of industrial, medical, educational, and scientific applications. These include but are not limited to teleoperation tasks where dexterity and precision is required in the control of slave robots such as robotic-assisted surgeries, space and undersea expeditions or interacting with hazardous environments. Virtual reality training simulators, human rehabilitation systems, computer-aided virtual prototyping , and gaming are some other promising applications of haptics. Haptic rendering algorithms are employed either to provide direct interaction with virtual environments or to produce virtual fixtures in robot manipulation tasks. The ultimate goal of haptics is to eliminate the boundaries between the real and virtual world in order to create the illusion of presence and direct immersive interaction with virtual or remote objects.’

An example of a haptic device - Quanser's 5DOF Haptic Wand

Q: How does Haptics technology work? What is it all about?

A: More scientifically, a Haptic interface is an example of a sampled-data system consisting of a continuous-time system and a discrete-time system. The discrete-time part is the sampled-data controller and the virtual environment simulator running on a CPU or a FPGA. The continuous-time part includes the human user interacting with a haptic device.

A haptic device is a bidirectional instrumented/actuated human-machine interface, employed by the human user order to actively interact with a computer simulated virtual environment. The goal of a haptic device is to stimulate human kinesthesia and tactile receptors in order to simulate immersive interaction with virtual objects. A haptic device can be in the form of a mouse, steering wheel, fingerpad, robotic handle, gripper, joystick, gloves, magnetically levitated wrist, or even motion platforms that move the entire user’s body. It can be used to simulate an environment with mass, damping, friction, and stiffness properties or it can mimic the mechanical behavior of a virtual tool interacting with its surrounding virtual environment. The type of the human receptors that haptic devices are targeting is one of the key factors that determines their shape, size and mechanical design.

Q: Why is Haptics important?

A: I have already mentioned some of the haptics applications. As an example, haptic virtual fixtures can help a surgeon in a brain surgery by preventing him/her from getting into some pre-specified deadly areas of the brain. A story on our blog has a good example of why it is important to surgeons in training.

Q: Is Haptics a rapidly growing field?

A: Haptics is a top research topic in many universities and companies now. The cost of haptics technology is drastically falling compared to the past decade as more inexpensive electronics and processor technologies are being developed. This helps haptics to be a rapidly growing field. Future belongs to new generations of robots and haptics proves its necessity when it comes to human/robot interactions.

Q: What is the most popular Haptics software or device on the market today?

A: As for the software, QuaRC developed by Quanser is the most reliable and growing real-time operating system. As for the device, PHANTOM developed by Sensable has been the most popular haptic device so far.

Q: Who benefits the most from this innovative technology?

A: Gamers are one of the biggest groups who have benefited from haptics technology in the past. Surgeons are using this technology for minimally invasive surgeries. This technology is being used for many training applications such as rehabilitation. Human/robot interaction is a big research topic in universities. The rehab robot is a great example.

Q: How does Quanser come up with the idea for some of the products you have created like the rehab robot (Autonomous Upper-Limb Stroke Rehabilitation Device)?

A: Let us start with this quote:“Necessity is the mother of invention, it is true, but its father is creativity, and knowledge is the midwife”. Either we find the necessity for our products in everyday life or our clients introduce it to us. The rest is left to the creativity and knowledge of our professional team of engineers.

Quanser's Rehabilitation robot helps patients recover faster.

Q: What education, training or knowledge is essential for working with robotics and haptic technology?

A: Having a degree in electrical and computer engineering or in mechanical engineering is usually sufficient to enter the huge market of research and development of this technology. Many companies hire engineering interns, which can help students get more industry experience and validate their career path.

Q: What work is specifically done each day in your job? Can you describe your daily job routine?

A: We do almost everything in terms of software and hardware implementation to make an intelligent living creature out of electronics and other dead pieces. These creatures are often supposed to interact with humans which introduces many challenges to us as engineers. More specifically, here is a list of what I do at my current position:

Designing new robotic manipulators and mechatronics devices for educational and industrial applications

Finding innovative solutions for the design and implementation issues in terms of the device architecture and electronics based on the application

Solving many control challenges that we face with our new devices or we receive from our industrial clients.

Preparing demos and programs for our products depending on their different applications

Doing statistical analysis and study on human perceptual abilities mainly in the field of haptics and teleoperation

Documenting manuals and curricula for our new educational and industrial products

"Banana surgery" - demonstration of Quanser's teleoperation system

Q: What are the greatest challenges in this position? What are the demands and frustrations that typically accompany this job?

A: Our company is one of the pioneers in the field of mechatronics and robotics. This brings us so many new challenges every day. As an engineer, I face many control and design challenges and solving these problems is what keeps me satisfied. My position requires a lot of brain activities in terms of finding innovative solutions. That is the main demand of the job but not the frustrating part of the job. The frustration is when I notice that a challenge is not solvable based on the existing resources (especially time).

Q: How did you get involved in this type of work?

A: Working in the field of robotics/mechatronics has been my passion since my childhood. I aimed all my educational activities towards this field. My academic background in electrical engineering and my passion helped me and guided me to fit into my current job position.

Q: What do you like about your job? Any dislikes?

A: Versatility and new challenges of the projects is the most exciting part of my job. Watching our sophisticated products working properly after a lot of effort and brainstorming is the best part of the job. Personally, the part of my job that does not attract me that much is the documentation of our products.

Q: What skills does it take to be successful in your job?

A: Above average programming skills and excellent understanding of control systems, electronics, and physics (university level). It is very important to gain engineering attitudes while taking engineering courses in the university. This is not achievable unless you combine your theoretical knowledge with hands-on experiences.

Q: What kind of advice would you give a student who is interested in doing what you do?

A: Always try to be an expert in whatever you do. The more time you spend on studying and experimenting in your interested field of study, the more skills and experience you achieve. This results in a successful career in your future. Seek out experts and professionals that do what you want to do. Ask questions. Shadow. Take a multi-faceted approach to becoming an expert.

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