Robot hand uses light to sense force, paving way to collaborative humanoids

Robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are experimenting with fiber optic sensors. The researchers created a highly sensitive robotic hand that uses optical sensors and light to sense force. The sensors may play an important role in a coming class of highly dexterous collaborative humanoids for industry and personal assistance.

The history of robotics is a history of sensors. Industrial robots are capable of executing tasks with extreme precision, but until recently they have been confined to cages. The combination of extraordinary power and a limited ability to sense the world around them have made them too dangerous for humans to work around. More recently, collaborative robots, such as Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, allow for flexible task planning and are designed to interact with humans. In large part this is because they rely on force sensors that can detect an unexpected obstacle, prompting the robot to change course before any damage is done.

But we’re only at the beginning of human-robot collaboration, and as robots become increasingly dexterous, and as more powerful AI enables machines to do their own task planning, new sensors that greatly improve tactile and force sensing on multi-joint robots will be essential.

“If you want robots to work autonomously and to react safely to unexpected forces in everyday environments, you need robotic hands that have more sensors than is typical today,” says Yong-Lae Park, assistant professor of robotics at CMU. “Human skin contains thousands of tactile sensory units only in the fingertip and a spider has hundreds of mechanoreceptors on each leg, but even a state-of-the-art humanoid, such as NASA’s Robonaut, has only forty-two sensors in its hand and wrist.”

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