Robots with “sensitive skin”


On 30th June, the participants will discuss the future of human-robot interaction. Application scenarios and demands in automobile production as well as the latest technologies will be presented. Dr. Norbert Elkmann, head of the robot systems department, reports on the latest trends in the development of these technological solutions in the following interview.


The Magdeburg researchers of the Fraunhofer Institute have developed the latest robot technology and systems since its establishment in 1992. Industry requirements are your focus. Robots developed by the IFF can be found on many places throughout Germany. Please give us an example ...

Dr. Norbert Elkmann: That's an easy question to answer. Let's take, for example, our facade cleaning robots which clean the glass halls of Leipzig Messe and the main train station in Berlin… The development of inspection and cleaning robots for the Emscher river sewage line is also a very large project. The systems developed by us represent a new standard in the inspection of canals worldwide. On the basis of the information generated, even 0.5 mm wide cracks can be definitely identified and possible damage patterns exactly measured.

Over the last 20 years, requirements and opportunities for intelligent robot systems have changed. What are your research focal areas in the moment?

Dr. Norbert Elkmann: We are increasingly focussing on so-called robot assistants. These represent a new class of robots as they directly share the working area and interact with humans. They stand out for the fact that using sensors and intelligent computing, they are able to perceive their environment and people, communicate in a multimodal way with people and navigate make decisions independently.

Fields of application beyond industrial uses are also opening up. In what direction is the trend moving?

Dr. Norbert Elkmann:
Let's take the example of in the household. Older persons or those with physical limitations would like to live in their home for as long as possible. Robot assistants could provide a significant support here. Or as assistance systems in hospitals or care homes, they could relieve personnel of routine tasks. This is becoming increasingly important given the lack of personnel.

In this context, at your institute you are looking into artificial skin for robots and other new technologies which enable direct collaboration between humans and robots, taking safety matters into account....

Dr. Norbert Elkmann: That's right. We are intensively looking at the issue of how safety can be ensured in human-robot interaction. People should not be harmed under any circumstances. An artificial skin designed and patented by us reliably recognises collisions with people and cushions the impact. According to the robot manufacturers and the industry, this is a new, important type of technology for safe human-robot interaction. However, this technology can also be integrated into floor boards and thus monitor work areas. In addition, we are developing an innovative, optical work monitoring system based on projection and camera technology. The field of "safety in human-robot interaction" is highly exciting, there is still a lot to be done …

Dr. Norbert Elkmann

K.-P. Voigt

Klaus-Peter Voigt

Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF
Dr. Norbert Elkmann
Sandtorstraße 22
39106 Magdeburg

Tel. +49 (0) 391 4090222