In what could be a major advance for both industrial robots and prosthetic hands, researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have developed a specially designed robot that can outperform humans in identifying a wide range of natural materials by sensing their textures. The robot has a new type of tactile sensor built to mimic the human fingertip. It uses algorithms imitating human strategies to identify textures by touch.
The BioTac tactile robotic sensor is built to mimic the human fingertip and uses algorithms imitating human strategies to identify textures by touch. (Source: SynTouch)
Built by Gerald Loeb, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the USC Medical Device Development Facility, and biomedical engineering doctoral candidate Jeremy Fishel, the multimodal BioTac fingertip-shaped sensor is filled with conductive fluid. Fingerprint-like ridges on its flexible elastomeric "skin" have a biomimetic size of 0.4mm spacing. When the BioTac slides over textured surfaces, vibrations are induced that propagate through the fluid, changing its impedance, which is sensed by electrodes. That data is conveyed to a pressure sensor.
The testbed apparatus consists of a stepper motor attached to a lever that raises or lowers the BioTac on or off of textured surfaces. Contact force is controlled by adjusting the stepper motor's vertical position. A special vibration-free linear stage is used to slide textures past the BioTac to emulate lateral motion. The textured surfaces are attached to flat, square magnets that can be quickly mounted and dismounted on a steel plate attached to the linear stage (watch a video below).
The BioTac sensor selects from a database of 117 different textures derived from common materials. The database serves as the equivalent of previous experiences the robot can use for distinguishing new textures it encounters. After selecting and making an average of five exploratory movements, the robot could correctly identify novel materials 95 percent of the time. Compared to human subjects who could not distinguish between two very similar textures, the robot was successful 99.6 percent of the time.
To differentiate the new texture from a set of plausible candidates, the discrimination algorithm uses a method when exploring a texture to adaptively select the best movement to make and the correct property to measure, based on its previous experience. Loeb and Fishel call this process "Bayesian exploration" in an article describing BioTac published in Frontiers in Neurorobotics.
"Extending this algorithm to a complete robotic system working in unstructured environments is expected to degrade the quality of measured signals, which was enhanced by the careful design of a custom-built experimental apparatus," they wrote.
"In particular, the actuators in humanoid robots are likely to be considerably noisier than our apparatus, introducing both variability into the exploratory movements and noise into the sensor signals. Additional training to better understand the characteristics of noise and variability is one way to compensate for this. We expect the Bayesian exploration method to be robust to this and evolve to make the most of available information."
The authors are also equity partners in SynTouch LLC, which develops and manufactures tactile sensors for mechatronic systems that mimic the human hand, including the BioTac.
The main applications mentioned by the researchers are giving industrial robots a finer sense of touch for distinguishing more easily and quickly among objects they handle, as well as prosthetic hands for people.
Beth, I can think of one right off the bat from some groups I have been talking to. The application is automated product inspection. This is done now with vision systems. Adding a tactile sensor to the inspection system would be useful in a lot of situations. Presently, we use vision systems to evaluate texture of surfaces. This could be tuned to be more accurate.
One more example of how technology is making robots much more human-like. But what's the business benefit of having a robot develop a sense of touch? Are there specific applications where this kind of added capability would be useful?
Prosthetic limbs and other artificial body parts have come a long way in the last 10 to 20 years, and many on the market and under development today can restore nearly the same functions as the human body parts they’re replacing, or even improve them.