New Tech Gives Robots Sense of Touch

By Sean Carberry

Military use of unmanned, autonomous or robotic devices is only increasing as technology evolves and allows people to step back from danger while machines do the work, and one company has announced a technology that will give robots another edge: the sense of touch.

BeBop Sensors — which manufactures intelligent fabrics and haptic gloves — has developed RoboSkin, a flexible fabric loaded with sensors that mimics human touch when applied to a robotic fingertip.

“We have sensor density on fingertips that has better spatial resolution than human fingertips, and also has a greater range of response in terms of force,” said Keith McMillen, founder and president of BeBop Sensors.

Each fingertip has 80 sensors that can measure pressure from 5 grams to 50 kilograms. The technology essentially creates a nervous system and enables robots to perform with greater dexterity and autonomy, according to a promotional video.

“If we expect robots to work with us, they need to fit through our doors and use our tools, and sensing their environment as people do is essential,” McMillen added.

RoboSkin, which is less than 1mm thick, starts with a polyester or nylon non-woven fabric, which is then treated so the outside of each fiber is conductive. “And then as the fabric is disturbed — either by pressure, shear, bend — its electrical characteristics change because those fibers have a different relationship to each other,” added McMillen. “And then we pull signals off of the fiber. Then we can process them and produce very detailed and accurate data.”

That data allows robots to adjust to changing conditions and modulate how they move or grip objects. And that data can also be transmitted to a human through haptic gloves.

“So, it allows a person working in robotics … to feel objects, sense their shape, heft their weight, know if they’re connecting,” said McMillen.

While the skin could be applied to robots performing tasks ranging from health care to manufacturing, there are many potential military applications. For example, robots are routinely used for explosive ordnance disposal.

“Most of the robotic tools just have like a gripper that opens and closes, and it doesn’t provide any feedback,” said McMillen. “So, if you have a pair of data gloves that has haptics … you can be remote and you can have a manipulator and end effector on a robot that matches your movements, senses what it’s touching and sends that data back to your fingertips.”

BeBop already produces such data gloves, which are used by the Air Force. BeBop received a direct to phase II Small Business Innovation Research contract from the Air Force a few years ago to provide gloves that work with virtual reality goggles for remote training.

“So, they didn’t have to bring the whole planes or jets into a classroom-like situation where they would be grounded while someone sat there and learned it,” said McMillen. “They were learning it virtually using our data gloves.”

McMillen said he envisions building potentially millions of RoboSkin devices.

“We also consider this project where we’re like tailors, like on Savile Row,” he added. “People will have different hands and fingers for their applications, and we can tailor the robot skin relatively quickly to fit different robotic finger, or hand or foot shapes.”

Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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