Kate Greene

A View from Kate Greene

Touchy-Feely Robot Hand

Intel shows off a robot hand that can sense before it grabs and hold things with a gentle touch.

  • June 13, 2008

Robots are mainstays in factories and manufacturing plants, but in most parts of the world, they aren’t found in homes, interacting with people. Part of the problem, says Intel senior researcher Josh Smith, is that today’s robots don’t have the capability to perform spontaneous close-range interactions well. Grabbing a silicon wafer is one thing, but gently helping an elderly person out of a chair is something completely different.

So last September, Smith and his team developed a technology they call pre-touch, which can sense the location of an object about an inch away from the robot grabber. Pre-touch electrodes, positioned at the ends of robot fingers, emit a small electrical field. When a conducting object, such as metal or anything with water in it, comes within range, it changes the fingers’ electric field. Algorithms process this change in electric field and essentially create a visual map of an object’s position.

At a recent Intel Research event in Mountain View, CA, Smith showed off his latest version of the robot hand. In addition to the pre-touch sensors, he’s added a strain gauge that measures the amount of force exerted by each robotic finger. The force applied by each finger can indicate to the robot that an object is slipping or that it’s securely encircled by all fingers. Once the object is positioned well, the mechanical fingers close around it, squeezing only hard enough to keep the object from slipping. See a video of the action below.

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