New York, December 14: A new innovation by researchers at Cornell University has developed a soft robot that can feel the surroundings the same way humans do. In a move aimed at doing away with the rigid touch most robots are associated with, researchers have devised a way for a soft robot to feel its surroundings internally, in much the same way humans do. The project was led by Robert Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator of Organic Robotics Lab.
Most robots achieve grasping and tactile sensing through motorized means, which can be excessively bulky and rigid. Scientists have developed a soft robotic hand that can feel its surroundings internally, just as humans, and perform tasks like picking out ripe tomatoes. “Most robots today have sensors on the outside of the body that detects things from the surface,” said Huichan Zhao, doctoral student at Cornell.
The hope is that by creating soft, tactile robots which can feel the world around them, researchers can develop better prosthetic limbs or help surgeons to train for, or even perform risky surgery.“Our sensors are integrated within the body, so they can actually detect forces being transmitted through the thickness of the robot, a lot like we and all organisms do when we feel pain, for example,” Zhao said.
"Our human hand is not functioning using motors to drive each of the joints; our human hand is soft with a lot of sensors on the surface and inside the hand," stated Huichan Zhao, lead author and doctoral student in mechanical engineering. These sensors operate identically to fibre optic wires, except ours can stretch to more than 500 per cent their initial length,’ explained Dr Robert Shepherd, whose lab carried out the research. Another difference is that ours do not transmit data perfectly.
Many warehouses are already making use of soft robotic technology for handling food and other items, but Cornell's hand is special because it can handle more delicate items. It was amply demonstrated by Gentle Bot by picking up the softest and ripest tomatoes from a bunch after feeling their shape and texture.
To understand the functional dynamics of soft robotic hand, researchers call for visualizing a balloon that is human hand-shaped with light running through bent waveguides. Waves are carried inside pipes. As soon as the hand comes into contact with something, the waveguides bend, distortion of light takes place, and data on what the hand is touching are relayed.
The merit is that Gentle Bot breaks the convention that robotic hand must be made of a material that can conduct electricity. Gentle Bot has sensors integrated within the body and enabled to detect transmissions through the robots' thickness, explained Zhao while emphasizing that its function is different from other robots that are wired from outside.