With robots leaving factory environments and entering less controlled domains, possibly sharing living space with humans, safety needs to be guaranteed. To this end, some form of awareness of their body surface and the space surrounding it is desirable. In this work, we present a unique method that lets a robot learn a distributed representation of space around its body (or peripersonal space) by exploiting a whole-body artificial skin and through physical contact with the environment. Every taxel (tactile element) has a visual receptive field anchored to it. Starting from an initially blank state, the distance of every object entering this receptive field is visually perceived and recorded, together with information whether the object has eventually contacted the particular skin area or not. This gives rise to a set of probabilities that are updated incrementally and that carry information about the likelihood of particular events in the environment contacting a particular set of taxels. The learned representation naturally serves the purpose of predicting contacts with the whole body of the robot, which is of clear behavioral relevance. Furthermore, we devised a simple avoidance controller that is triggered by this representation, thus endowing a robot with a “margin of safety” around its body. Finally, simply reversing the sign in the controller we used gives rise to simple “reaching” for objects in the robot's vicinity, which automatically proceeds with the most activated (closest) body part.
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