New Scientist explores the gentler side of our eventual mechanical overlords, as engineers create a sensor-studded skin for a gentle, sensitive robot:
Most robots are taught to avoid bumping into people and objects, complicating the simple task of reaching for an object in a cluttered environment, like a salt shaker on a dinner table crowded with plates and glasses.
To tackle this, Charlie Kemp of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and colleagues created a flexible electronic skin studded with 384 sensors that detect very slight touch. The skin covers the robot’s entire arm, and stretches and flexes as the arm moves. The arm itself, developed by Meka Robotics of San Francisco, has springy joints that allow it to close gently around any object it grasps.
The arm usually takes the shortest route to its goal, gently brushing objects out of the way. But if it meets with a user-defined amount of resistance, it recoils and chooses a new route. The sensitivity level can be changed to match the task, from picking delicate fruit to searching for a person buried in rubble.
The team demonstrated the arm’s usefulness in a test in which a quadriplegic man manipulated it using head motions. He was able to use the arm to pull a blanket over himself… and to wipe his face with a cloth.