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New sensors can give robot hands a 'gentle touch'

April 18, 2013 at 4:11 PM

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 18 (UPI) -- Robot hands could gain a gentler touch with inexpensive tactile sensing technology utilizing widely available electronic chips, U.S. researchers say.

Engineers at Harvard University have developed a very inexpensive sensor for robotic hands sensitive enough to turn a brute machine into a dexterous manipulator, the school said in a release Thursday.

Called TakkTile, the sensor is intended to put what would normally be a high-end technology within the grasp of commercial inventors, teachers and robotics enthusiasts, the school said.

"Despite decades of research, tactile sensing hasn't moved into general use because it's been expensive and fragile," said co-creator Leif Jentoft, a graduate student in the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory.

"It normally costs about $16,000, give or take, to put tactile sensing on a research robot hand," he said. "That's really limited where people can use it."

TakkTile uses inexpensive existing devices -- tiny barometers which sense air pressure -- and adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to them, protecting them from as much as 25 pounds of direct pressure.

That creates a sensor that can detect a very slight touch, and the result, when added to a mechanical hand, is a robot that knows what it's touching and how hard to grasp it, the researchers said.

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