Tactile Sensing: Humanoid Robots With a Sense of Touch

The rise of the machines may be closer than you think -- and that could be a good thing. Cutting-edge technologies such as tactile sensors are spurring the evolution of robots from repetitive, task-oriented machines in the industrial environment to humanoids capable of serving an assistive function in the home or care environments.

At the forefront of humanoid robot development is famed roboticist Rodney Brooks, cofounder of both iRobot, which released the Roomba robotic vacuum, and Rethink Robotics, purveyor of the much-ballyhooed Baxter humanoid robot. Touted by Rethink Robotics as "the robot with common sense," Baxter boasts the ability to learn tasks by observing manual demonstrations from line workers while presenting a means of keeping simple manufacturing operations in-house rather than resorting to offshoring. In response to these benefits, Baxter has been hailed by some as a game-changer in the manufacturing sector.

Despite his expressive eyes and ability to learn tasks, however, Baxter lacks an important human trait that can be easily replicated: the sense of touch.

Exemplifying the potential of combing advanced robotics with tactile sensing technology, on the other hand, is the BarrettHand. A multi-fingered programmable grasper, the BarrettHand is equipped with capacitive-based pressure-sensing technology that allows for dexterous manipulation of items in applications ranging from robotic surgery to rover or repair missions in space.

Tactile sensors provide quantifiable, accurate data about how hard the hand is grasping and where, exactly, the contact is being made. With 96 different sensing elements, the BarrettHand can detect exactly how much pressure its fingertips, grippers, and palms are exerting onto a surface. This capability allows it to operate differently shaped tools, or even fragile items, and to have a greater degree of autonomy.

But the BarrettHand and Baxter represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg in regards to the potential of humanoid robots. The possible applications for futuristic humanoid robots equipped with a sense of touch are seemingly limited only by the imagination.

Tactile sensors, for example, hold the potential to someday transport robots from the industrial environment to the home. While the Roomba cleared a path for robots entering into domestic life, future robots could more closely resemble Rosie the robot, the humanoid housekeeper employed by the titular cartoon family in The Jetsons. The use of tactile pressure-sensing could facilitate the development of such humanoid robots and allow them to securely handle fragile dishes and glasses by responding to force feedback.

Humanoid robots equipped with tactile sensing could also prove valuable in elder care. Researchers in Japan, in particular, are actively investigating opportunities for advanced robotics in this area as the country struggles to effectively support a substantial aging population. Pressure-sensor-equipped humanoid robots could help elderly patients to stand based on feedback obtained from the person's grip and even guide or assist people with everyday tasks.

Whether the aim is to ease the burden of housework or revolutionize manufacturing, researchers are fusing advanced technology with valuable human characteristics -- such as the sense of touch -- to redefine the role of robots in the modern world.

Jae Son, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Pressure Profile Systems and Medical Tactile.

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