You may not think much about it when you finger skims a piece of fabric, picks up a smooth apple or touches the million pointed blades of grass in your front yard, but you are using one of the most advances tactile sensors in the world. Skin, on most creatures at least, does an amazing amount of sensing the world around us. Finding a set of manmade sensors that can match the precision of the human fingertip has been a complex challenge for robotics researchers, but it looks like a breakthrough in the field may be bringing robots closer to feeling the way that you and I do. Today, researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering published a paper in the noted journal, Frontiers in Neurorobotics, about just this topic. The paper outlines a new type of robot sensor that is designed to not only mimic what the human hand can do, but to surpass it.
In a release put out by the school, it was explained exactly how the sensor works, "Like the human finger, the group’s BioTac sensor has a soft, flexible skin over a liquid filling. The skin even has fingerprints on its surface, greatly enhancing its sensitivity to vibration. As the finger slides over a textured surface, the skin vibrates in characteristic ways. These vibrations are detected by a hydrophone inside the bone-like core of the finger. The human finger uses similar vibrations to identify textures, but the BioTac is even more sensitive."
The robot sensor has been tested, thus far, with common items found in homes and things that the researchers found in hardware stores. The robot had a 95 percent success rating on identifying those objects after five movements. As for the commercial applications of this kind of a device the researchers see it as working in consumer product testing and in the more serious work of human prostheses creation. The prospect of giving someone not just a replacement limb, but a feeling hand is certainly a tantalizing one.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman