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02/13/2019 / By Edsel Cook
A robot’s hand will one day be able to manipulate objects with the same levels of dexterity and touch of its human counterpart. Such robots will wear an electronic skin similar to the one developed by California-based researchers.
The Stanford researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of a robot hand wearing their electronic glove. The sensors in the flexible material provide tactile feedback regarding the object in the mechanical fingers. With this information, the robot was able to handle a very soft berry with the same ease that it manipulates a bigger, slightly sturdier ping pong ball.
“This technology puts us on a path to one day giving robots the sort of sensing capabilities found in human skin,” remarked researcher Zhenan Bao. He explained that the sensors are concentrated at the fingertips of the glove. These electronics can determine the direction and strength of the pressure at the same time and with great accuracy.
Bao and his fellow researchers are still refining the capabilities of their electronic glove. They hope to one day give robot hands the manual dexterity to hold an egg without any danger of breaking or dropping it. (Related: Your barista is being replaced by a robot, already in use in Japan.)
The human skin is responsible for the excellent sensitivity of the human hand. The outermost layer of skin contains many nerves that can pick up the slightest stimuli such as heat and pressure. The biggest concentrations of these touch-sensitive nerves can be found in the fingers and palms.
The electronic glove replicated the natural arrangement and capabilities of human skin. First, the Stanford researchers built the artificial sensors out of three flexible layers that were designed to work like the layers of skin. The upper and lower layers were made from electrically active material.
Each of the surfaces that faced each other received a grid of electric lines. The rows of these lines were set up to be perpendicular to each other, resulting in a dense cluster of pixel-sized sensors that can detect pressure.
Once finished, the sensors went onto the fingers of an ordinary rubber glove that could be worn by robot hands. They will measure the shear force that the robot must apply on an object’s surface to keep it from slipping out of its grip while also avoiding breaking it.
Multiple tests showed that the electronic glove gave robot hands the ability to manipulate objects with care and skill. A robot equipped with the touch sensors was able to handle a berry and manipulate a ping pong ball without harming either of the objects.
Researcher Bao explained how these upgraded robot hands could be put to use in the same job over and over again. For example, a robot with the electronic glove could pick up eggs from a conveyor belt and fit them into cartons, hopefully without breaking any of them.
These tasks do require programming. Bao is hoping that future versions can automatically handle fragile objects without the need for programs.
“We can program a robotic hand to touch a raspberry without crushing it, but we’re a long way from being able to touch and detect that is it raspberry and enable the robot to pick it up,” he admitted.
Meanwhile, Bao is planning to improve the prototype electronic glove into true electronic skin for robots. The sensors will be imbued into a flexible material that will coat the fingers of the robot’s hand.