Image credit – UCLA Engineering

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If there is one advantage that robots might have over humans is that they can’t “feel” what they are touching, meaning that picking up hot or cold objects that are too cold for our bare hands will not prove to be an issue with robots. However this can also be a disadvantage as it means that in terms of operations, robots can be less nuanced than humans.

However that could soon change thanks to the efforts of engineers from the University of Washington and UCLA who have developed a flexible “skin” for robots, which is essentially a flexible sensor that can be stretched over any part of a robot’s body or a prosthetic that can help convey information when it comes to grasping objects, like shear forces, vibration, and so on.

The sensor is said to be capable of mimicking the way a human finger experiences tension and compression, similar to how your hand feels when you are grabbing or holding onto a object. By allowing a robot to feel these nuances, the engineers believe it will help to improve the ability for robots to perform tasks that require a subtle touch, like dismantling a bomb, for example.

According to Jonathan Posner, a UW professor of mechanical engineering and of chemical engineering, “If a robot is going to dismantle an improvised explosive device, it needs to know whether its hand is sliding along a wire or pulling on it. To hold on to a medical instrument, it needs to know if the object is slipping. This all requires the ability to sense shear force, which no other sensor skin has been able to do well.”

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