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Touchy-Feely Robot

July 4, 2012

A touch-sensitive robotic finger outperforms humans on some tasks.



Touchy robots.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Giving robots a sense of touch has been notoriously difficult.  But a new robotic fingertip, called the BioTac, has a distinctly human feel.  It was developed by engineers Gerald Loeb and Jeremy Fishel, of the University of Southern California and the SynTouch company.  Loeb explains the design.

GERALD LOEB (University of Southern California/SynTouch LLC)

It’s very much like your finger.  It has an elastic skin, it has a hard bone inside, and it’s got squishy stuff in between.  And all of those turn out to be important in how your finger senses things.

Instead of nerve endings, the BioTac has embedded electronic sensors, which detect subtle vibrations in the finger-like material as it passes over a surface.  In one challenge, the BioTac actually outperformed humans at identifying different materials. Loeb and Fishel plan to put the sensors to a variety of uses, like making better prosthetic limbs. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Like the human finger, this artificial sensor has a soft, flexible skin over a liquid filling. (Credit: USC)