Many of the greatest innovations in robotic technology have come from designing robots that are a little bit more like humans than their predecessors. One research team, from Cornell University, has achieved a real breakthrough in this area: A robot with a touch almost as gentle as a person’s.
Cornell’s Robot Offers a Soft Touch
Cornell’s robotic hand provides motion so delicate it can sort tomatoes without damaging them. In the future, it could see applications in agriculture, healthcare, and many other sectors where robots' lack of tactile sensitivity has traditionally barred them from reaching their full potential.
But how does it work? The underlying technology is very different from the norm.
Most robots grasp and achieve simulated tactile sense through a complex system of motors. This is fine for many industrial applications, but it means resulting systems are almost inevitably bulky and rigid. That limits a system's range of motion and its ability to start and stop motion fluidly.
Cornell has taken a new approach, furnishing its next-generation robot hand with internal sensations.
“Looking Inward” to Solve Vexing Technical Problems
Human beings sense and relate themselves to their surroundings through a variety of internal senses. This includes, for example, proprioception – the sense of the physical and positional relationship of different parts of the body. By contrast, traditional robotic systems have been limited to an array of external sensors positioned along their exterior.
No matter how precise the sensor network, the resulting feedback is still comparatively rough.
The Cornell team has published remarkable new research describing how curvature, elongation, and force can be sensed more precisely in a robotic hand using stretchable optical waveguides. Under such a design, principal sensors exist within the robotic hand itself.
This empowers the system to detect subtle changes in force transmitted through its own materials. The basic principles mimic the human organism in many ways, being very similar to how pain is felt.
Compared to Others, the “Gentle Bot” is Next Level
Early tests of the gentle robotic hand have been promising in many ways, some of them unexpected. For example, researchers learned that, though traditional models could only sense items that conducted electricity, the “gentle bot” hand could easily sense any light-conductive material.
In the near future, the technology may be adapted to human-interactive systems. It also has extraordinary potential as the basis for a new generation of highly precise prosthetic hands.