This New Robot Has a Sense of Touch

A robot with a sense of touch can better navigate our cluttered world

Powerful, metal-clad robot arms have the potential to cause huge amounts of damage, and engineers normally opt for a “keep your distance” approach to designing robot navigational systems: Grab the thing you need, but keep clear of everything else around it. But that approach, says John Markoff in the New York Times, doesn’t work so well in our incredibly cluttered world, where objects often litter the path between here and there.

Giving robots a sense of touch, letting them feel the pressure between themselves and nearby objects, will let them navigate this busy landscape to grab, say, an object at the back of a shelf, while simultaneously limiting how hard they push against any one thing.

Robots, guided by machine vision, have also been limited by their inability to reach into spaces, the way living creatures can, to pick out an object. They are, in fact, programmed to avoid contact.

“We’re flipping that on its head,” Dr. Kemp said. “Let’s say contact with the arm is fine, as long as the forces are low.”

The new robot arm, with a rudimentary sense of touch equipped, can reach around and pick out a desired object by touch alone.

A sense of touch in robots has been a steadily developing goal. In 2005, says National Geographic, fake skin for robots started us down this path.

The meshwork of sensors laced onto a thin plastic film resembles thickly threaded fishnet stockings. When stretched over an object, such as a robotic hand, E-skin can detect pressure and temperature.

What’s more, the meshwork can bend with a robot hand or other object, however it moves. Experts say this type of all-encompassing sensor system could be a big step toward developing fully functioning, humanoid robots.

There has been a flurry of improvements in the robot-skin department, Popular Science, Discovery and io9 report. Even more new developments, says The Engineer, are racing us towards robots with a human-like sense of touch.

But for now, says the Times, the slightly-clumsy robot seen in the video above is where we’re at: a robot with a cautious touch that doesn’t mind brushing arms. “In a video produced by the lab, a robot arm is shown wiping the mouth of a disabled man and adjusting a blanket,” says the Times. “Volunteers who allowed the robot to touch them said the sensations were not uncomfortable.”

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