Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed an inexpensive tactile sensor for robotic hands that is sensitive enough to turn a brute machine into a dexterous manipulator.
Designed by researchers in the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory at SEAS, the sensor, called TakkTile, is intended to put what would normally be a high-end technology within the grasp of commercial inventors, teachers, and robotics enthusiasts.
“Despite decades of research, tactile sensing hasn’t moved into general use because it’s been expensive and fragile,” explains co-creator Leif Jentoft, a graduate student at SEAS. “It normally costs about $16,000, give or take, to put tactile sensing on a research robot hand. That’s really limited where people can use it. The traditional technology also uses very specialized construction techniques, which can slow down your work. Now, Takktile changes that because it’s based on much simpler and cheaper fabrication methods.”
TakkTile takes an existing device — a tiny barometer, which senses air pressure — and adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to it, protecting it from as much as 25 pounds of direct pressure. Jentoft and co-creator Yaroslav Tenzer, a postdoctoral fellow, say that the chips can even survive a strike from a hammer or a baseball bat. At the same time, TakkTile is sensitive enough to detect a very slight touch.
The result, when added to a mechanical hand, is a robot that knows what it’s touching. It can pick up a balloon without popping it. It can pick up a key and use it to unlock a door.