Scientists in this group seek to endow robots with astute haptic perception and invent methods for delivering realistic haptic feedback to users of telerobotic and virtual reality systems.
Dr. Kuchenbecker’s research concentrates on the field of haptics, which deals with robot and human interaction with physical objects through the sense of touch. Humans are typically not aware of the importance of this sensory modality because we have exquisite tactile perception. We depend on touch-based information in interactions that range from the commonplace, such as extracting our keys from a bag, to the highly specialized, such as a doctor locating and diagnosing a malignant tumor. Without a sense of touch, we could not control our bodies or manipulate objects.
Today’s robotic systems typically have high-resolution cameras, powerful central processing units, and multi-jointed bodies, but they rarely possess any sort of distributed tactile sensing because such sensors have only recently become available and are still poorly understood. The omission of touch sensing prevents robots from approaching human levels of dexterity. Additionally, modern human-computer interfaces often focus on visual and audio display, ignoring the importance of haptic cues.
Dr. Kuchenbecker’s research addresses the sensing, understanding, and display of tactile information for robots, teleoperation, and innovative interfaces. Her work combines inspiration from neuroscience with novel materials, machine learning, and robotic systems to uncover the principles that are central for haptic perception.
While she was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kuchenbecker and her students invented a practical method of adding haptic feedback to teleoperated robotic surgery systems like the da Vinci robot manufactured by Intuitive Surgical. Currently used at various German hospitals like Katharinenhospital Stuttgart, these robots enable surgeons to perform a wide variety of difficult surgical procedures through very small incisions. Compared to traditional open surgery, such procedures typically afford shorter healing time, less pain, and lower risk of infection. Her ongoing research with clinical collaborators shows that haptic feedback of instrument vibrations improves the surgeon’s awareness of instrument contacts and may accelerate learning.
Kuchenbecker’s focus complements that of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems and creates an additional bridge between the institute’s Stuttgart-based research on intelligent materials and bio-, micro- and nano-systems and the research on perception, machine learning, and robotic control, the main foci of the departments in Tubingen. “A strong interdisciplinary approach is what really distinguishes Max Planck from other research facilities. Connecting to other fields is of great importance to me, as the topics on which I work combine many approaches and disciplines – that’s what I like most about scientific research”, says Kuchenbecker.
She plans to diversify and enhance her research activities by forming new collaborations with the existing research groups and the available cutting-edge research infrastructure at the institute. Dr. Kuchenbecker knows that working in an interdisciplinary setting focused purely on research will surely give her new impulses for unexplored and fascinating research directions. She is currently recruiting doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows from around the world to join her team in Stuttgart.
Dr. Kuchenbecker is thrilled about her move to Germany: “Being a Max Planck director is the perfect combination of scientific, creative, and mentoring jobs. I am really thankful and excited to be here!”
For Metin Sitti, Managing Director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems, the appointment of Katherine J. Kuchenbecker is a great step towards strengthening the institute’s research profile: “Katherine’s very exciting and highly interdisciplinary research program on haptics and human-machine interfaces will significantly strengthen our institute and greatly complement our existing research activities.”
Katherine J. Kuchenbecker received the PhD degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in California, USA, in 2006. After a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, she became the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. She was tenured and promoted to Associate Professor in 2013, when she also received a secondary appointment in the Penn Department of Computer and Information Science. Since July 2016 she has been a part-time Director and Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, and she started her appointment full-time in January 2017.