By Kalwinder Kaur
A team of researchers from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering have carried out a study wherein robots were fitted with the right sensors, software and actuators to enable them to feel and touch different materials. This study creates a breakthrough in personal assistive robots, consumer product testing and prostheses.
Under the experiment, a special robot was fitted with a new tactile sensor called BioTac sensor which copies the human fingertip. The robot also makes decisions by making use of algorithms that copy human strategies. Similar to human sensations, the robot will be able to indicate where and in which direction the force is applied and can also sense the thermal properties of the material that it touches. The sensor has a liquid filling which is covered with soft and flexible skin. The skin has been set with fingerprints to enhance its sensitivity to vibration. When the finger runs through different textures, the skin vibrates in typical ways and identifies the textures.
The robot was built by doctoral student Jeremy Fishel and was tested on 117 materials such as hardware stores, fabric and stationery. When the robot was presented with one material at random, it could identify the material 95% of the time by making an average of five exploratory movements. However, the robot does not have the ability to identify which texture will be preferred by people. The robot could be useful for companies that employ experts to feel consumer products and human skin. Professor of Biomedical Engineering Gerald Loeb and Fishel are partners in SynTouch LLC which specialises in the manufacture of tactile sensors for mechatronic systems.