Are robots gaining the magic touch?

1 Feb 2016

The field of robotics is advancing at an alarming rate, but one key restriction remains: touch. But is that all about to change?

Digital skin remains one of the trickier areas of robotics. While movement, AI, strength and agility improve consistently, it is the gentler side of humans that has so far been hardest to replicate.

But that could soon change.

Touch of a hand

Scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have researched a new gentle gripper that could, in theory, be added to anything from space crafts to drones, robots to prosthetics.

Made out of rubber and stretchable electrodes, a team developed a tool that can pick up delicate objects like eggs, bending around objects to get a firm grip. Electroadhesion is the special ingredient, which, for those unaware, is like the static you use to stick a balloon to a wall.

RoboticsThe process behind this latest development in robotics, via EPFL/Alain Herzog

Last grasp

Publishing a paper in Advanced Materials, Jun Shintake and his co-researchers said they think the technique could be used to capture debris in space, or handle food in warehouses.

“This is the first time that electroadhesion and soft robotics have been combined together to grasp objects,” said Shintake, of a device that uses voltage to mimic human muscle motion.

The power makes the electrodes in the ‘fingers’ bend towards the object, providing a strong enough grip to lift it up.

“The novelty of our soft gripper is the ideal combination of two technologies: artificial muscles and electroadhesion,” added Dario Floreano of EPFL.

RoboticsThe gripper in action, via EPFL/Alain Herzog

Touchy feely

This isn’t the only advancement in this area in recent times, though. Last October, scientists in Stanford University developed a flexible material to replicate skin – filled with organic circuits and pressure sensors – that can be put onto a robotic hand.

It works by using a layered plastic construct, the outer housing the sensing mechanism and the inner becoming a circuit to translate and send signals to the brain.

The process required proof that an electronic signal could be recognised by a biological neuron. It did this by adapting a technique called optogenetics, a combination of optics and genetics.

With a digital skin concept, and gentle gripping approach, this quite clearly points to a new wave in robotics and engineering in the near future.

Should these projects work in scaled-up formats, then a major hurdle will have been overcome in just a few short months.

Robot hand image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic