Robotic Fingertip Outperforms Humans In Feeling Textures

By Chelsea Whyte on June 19, 2012 6:00 PM EDT

BioTac Robotic Finger
Like the human finger, the BioTac sensor has a soft, flexible skin over a liquid filling. (Photo: USC)

What does a robot feel? Usually, not much. But with a new tactile sensor built by researchers at the University of Southern California, a robot's sense of touch is even more sensitive than a human's.

Like a human finger, the BioTac sensor has a soft, flexible skin over a liquid filling. It can tell where and in which direction forces are applied to the fingertip and even measures the temperature of items the robot touches.

The sensor mimics the human fingertip right down to the artificial fingerprints that increase the robot's sensitivity to vibration, which helps in identifying textures. These vibrations are detected by a hydrophone - a small microphone usually used to pick up sound under water - inside the bone-like core of the finger, and though the artificial intelligence copies a human's sense of touch, the sensors in the robot's finger are even more sensitive than a human fingertip is to these vibrations.

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Robots with the sense of touch may seem unnecessary, or even slightly creepy, but the researchers say this touch technology could be used in consumer product testing, personal assistive robots, or human prostheses.  

"If you have ever had your fingers so numb from the cold that you couldn't feel things, your hands are almost useless, if you can't feel what you're touching, it slips, you can't do things, it's as if you're paralysed," said Professor of Biomedical Engineering Gerald Loeb, according to The Daily Mail. "By adding tactile sensing to prosthetic hands you can overcome that problem."

The specialized robot was tested on 117 common materials gathered from fabric stores, hardware stores, and stationary stores. When the robot touched one material at random, it was able to correctly identify the material 95 percent of the time after making five exploratory movements. It was rarely confused by pairs of similar textures, but these were between materials that even humans couldn't distinguish at all.

This isn't the first attempt to give robot's a sense of touch, reports GizMag. From hexagonal plates that sense proximity and temperature to artificial skin constructed from nanowires, many technologies have attempted to bring feeling to the fingers of robots. But the performance of BioTac may outshine the others. 

"It's a new class of device," Loeb said. "There are no tactile sensors on prosthetic hands or on industrial robots because there haven't been any sensors. So coming up with the applications, the algorithms, the kinds of work that we're producing in this paper, there are the opportunities now to do things that have never been done before." 

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