Imagine a service robot which assists people with their daily tasks, without replacing them – robot waiters or hotel staff able to carry trays or suitcases, depending where they are. This idea may be appealing to many, as long as the robots are not too humanlike. “Similarity is what instills fear in people the most. In Asia it is not perceived as a problem –actually, it’s the opposite. In Europe (and, in general, in the West) however, it is a problem. It is for this reason Tactile Robots studies robots that in no way resemble humans or possess distinct human features.” Riccardo Tornese, a 34 year-old computer engineer from Lecce, in Puglia (Southern Italy), talks about the startup he founded with 5 partners in 2016. To find the latest applications of robotics or automatic transportation, it is not always necessary to go abroad: you can find excellence in robotics in our own country.
Founded in Lecce in 2016, Tactile Robots is still in its initial phases, currently focusing on the study of prototypes. This explains the low turnover for the years 2018 and 2019, one resulting from the consultancy providing automatic navigation, man-machine interface and production of custom-made robots. The company was founded in response to the needs of institutions like hospitals or hotels. “Our robots are carts that carry room service or luggage. It is possible to control the robot the same you would a traditional trolley, simply by touch, thanks to our patented tactile technology.” Tactile refers to the surface of the robot coated with touch-sensitive fabric. By touching it with your finger, anywhere on the fabric, the robot immediately moves a few centimeters forward, which makes it extremely safe. It can also move by itself in an environment previously memorized with sensors and video cameras, so it can then avoid obstacles on the learned route.
“It it for this element that people have full control of this machine,” explains Tornese. “Human centrality in design is something that should not be underestimated. Robotics, like all technologies that increase productivity, allows processes to be performed faster, obtaining better results in less time.” The fear of new has always existed. “What changes is that now, these instruments are capable of acquiring and developing broader capacities, similar to those of humans. This tends to create distrust among the general public. Tactile Robots has a “western” approach: we create robots as intelligent tools with no human appearance.” Therefore, robots are simply devices managed by humans to perform repetitive and tiring tasks. In this way, staff are freed up to devote more time and energy to the more “human” side of their jobs: in a hotel, for example, they may dedicate themselves to welcoming guests. In a hospital, doctors and nurses may dedicate more time interacting with patients. “Human resources will be replaced in some tasks, but not all. The idea of Tactile Robots is to increase the value of human work, so that human resources are destined for activities in which there is contact with people.”