Researchers give robots human-like perception of feel

Could have huge potential for possible future breakthroughs in prostheses and personal assistive robots design

Researchers at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering want to give robots the ability to feel.

Robots had largely remained unfeeling machines programmed to perform various tasks. But the researchers now want to radically change this and let robots identify things by mere touch. To achieve this, the researchers leveraged sensors, actuators and innovative software. The work was published in Frontiers in Neurorobotics.

Through an in-built tactile sensor, the robot feels whatever it touches more like the human finger does. A specially designed new type of tactile sensor enables the robot to work like the human fingertip. To further reinforce its human-like ‘feel’ capabilities, the scientists developed algorithms that enable the robot to mimic human strategies for exploring the outside world. The sensor primarily makes the robots capable of most other human-like sensations. For instance, the robot can effectively determine the direction of forces being felt on the fingertip and even the thermal properties of the material it’s exploring.

The sensor is known as BioTac®, made up of a soft, flexible skin on a liquid filling. To determine the nature of a surface being touched, the robot’s skin vibrates as its finger moves over a surface. The vibrations are transferred to a hydrophone inside the finger. The human finger works in a sort of similar manner, except the robot’s finger is super sensitive.

The specially designed ‘feeling robots’ could do better than humans in determining various natural materials. The development could have huge potential for possible future breakthroughs in prostheses and personal assistive robots design. The robots could even be deployed in consumer product testing.

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