A new robot ‘finger’ is the most sensitive yet

Computer scientists in the U.S have made a sensor that allows a robot to ‘feel’ where it needs to go, meaning it can pick up and plug in a USB cable. That might not sound like such a big deal (I did it myself just this morning), but it’s actually a breakthrough. Robots can be so much more precise than people (no wonder robot-assisted surgery is increasingly popular) but usually only when they’re programmed in advance and placed in exactly the right position. Sensing where and how to move is a much more sophisticated skill.

The new sensor was created by a team at MIT who based it on a technology called GelSight, which Edward Adelson developed in 2009. Sensors with this technology are made from see-through rubber which has metallic paint on one side. When pressed against an object, the rubber takes on its shape and the paint absorbs any reflections or tricks of the light so the sensor can ‘see’ more easily.

This new adaptation involves putting the sensor inside a small plastic cube, which has a light emitting diodes at one end. The different coloured lights (red, green, blue, or white) are conducted by different sides of the cube, and depending on their intensity, the robot uses an algorithm to detect the shape of what it’s ‘touching’. It’s not as sensitive as the original GelSight sensor, but it’s smaller and works more quickly, allowing robots to respond and adapt to stimuli more easily (see it in action on this video).

Robert Platt, an assistant professor of computer science, developed the robot’s controls and tested the system alongside his colleagues at Northeastern University, and emphasises that this is the first time equipment like this has been successful to this degree. ‘People have been trying to do this for a long time and they haven’t succeeded because the sensors they’re using aren’t accurate enough,’ he says.

The researchers have just presented their results at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Chicago and say their device is especially impressive because it uses basic components, like coloured LEDs, but is at least 100 times more sensitive than a human finger.  For now, they only have a prototype, but the technology could be developed in future to have robots doing all kinds of things with more sensitivity than our clumsy fingers can manage. More importantly, with their help, our gadgets will always be charged.

Image credit: Melanie Gonick/MIT.

Diane Shipley