Robot hands could gain a gentler touch with new inexpensive tactile sensors that utilise widely available electronic chips, Harvard researchers say.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed the tactile sensing technology for robotic hands that is sensitive enough to turn a "brute machine into a dextrous manipulator".
The sensor, called TakkTile, is intended to put what would normally be a high-end technology within the grasp of commercial inventors, teachers, and robotics enthusiasts.
"Despite decades of research, tactile sensing hasn't moved into general use because it's been expensive and fragile," said co-creator Leif Jentoft.
"The traditional technology also uses very specialised construction techniques, which can slow down your work. Now, Takktile changes that because it's based on much simpler and cheaper fabrication methods," Jentoft said.
TakkTile takes an existing device - a tiny barometer, which senses air pressure - and adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to it, protecting it from as much as 25 pounds of direct pressure.
Jentoft and co-creator Yaroslav Tenzer, said that the chips can even survive a strike from a hammer or a baseball bat. Takktile is also sensitive enough to detect a very slight touch.
The result, when added to a mechanical hand, is a robot that knows what it's touching. It can pick up a balloon without popping it. It can pick up a key and use it to unlock a door.
Beyond robotics, Jentoft and Tenzer suggest that the TakkTile sensor could be used in a range of electronic devices.
The sensors can be built using relatively simple equipment, the patented process relies on standard methods used in printed circuit board fabrication, along with access to a vacuum chamber.
The tiny barometers are available cheaply because they have been widely used in cell phones and GPS units that can sense altitude.