Robots may have the potential to eventually surpass human intelligence. But one aspect where we will always have an advantage over them is touch, that is, human touch. It’s something that can’t be replicated. Or so we thought.
Based on a study published in the Science Robotics journal, a team of researchers from the Cornell University (led by assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Robert Shepherd) have invented what they are calling as the ‘Gentle Bot’ — a soft robot hand capable of human touch which has also the ability to ‘sense’. Specifically, it can touch delicate items without crushing them, and it can sense the shape and texture of those items.
With our existing technology, a robotic hand has to be made of something that can conduct electricity — like motorized or hydraulic joints made of metal — otherwise, it will not be able to grip or sense an item.
With the Cornell University researchers’ invention, it isn’t an electric conductor that’s needed. Instead, the robot hand is made of something that can conduct light. Apparently, it has optical waveguides inside, with each finger having its own LED. As light enters into the hand, the change in the amount of light (as it is bent or distorted) is measured by a photodiode — a light detector — and this allows sensing of the surroundings, similar with what human nerves do.
To test their Gentle Bot, the researchers used three tomatoes which they placed in front of the hand. They then directed it to pick out which one is the ripest. And the Gentle Bot was able to pick the right one. They also directed it to pick up a ripe tomato without crushing it. Gentle Bot was able to do this successfully too. What it failed to do, however, was distinguish between a real tomato and a fake acrylic one.
According to Huichan Zhao, lead author of the research and a mechanical engineering doctoral candidate at Cornell University, while most robots today have external sensors that detect or sense things from the surface, their sensors are located internally. Because of this, the sensors are able to detect what’s being transmitted through it, and not just rely on what is on the surface. Just like human hands which have sensors (nerves) within and on its surface, what they are aiming for is a soft hand that’s not purely mechanical but also has the ability for a more delicate touch.
Although robot hands are already being used in warehouses to handle food items and other products, what makes the new soft robot hand technology appealing is its potential applications in other fields like medicine, where it can be used to make better prosthetics. It might also be useful for medical training and surgical operations because of its ability to handle fragile objects and squeeze into tight spaces.
Right now, the Cornell team is looking for additional partners to help fund their project so they can develop their invention further through human testing.