Robots are traditionally known for having a crushing grip, not a gentle touch. But that could soon change thanks to a new tactile sensor developed at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Designed by researchers in the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory at SEAS, the so-called TakkTile sensor for robotic hands is sensitive enough to pick up a balloon without popping it and durable enough to absorb a blow from a hammer or baseball bat.

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TakkTile uses a tiny barometer, commonly used in cell phones and GPS units that can sense altitude, to detect air pressure. The sensor is then covered in a protective layer of vacuum-sealed rubber that can withstand as much as 25 pounds of pressure. When added to a mechanical hand, a robot can “know” what it’s touching and is dexterous to even pick up a key and unlock a door.

Since the sensors can be built using simple equipment and the standard methods for printing circuit boards, the TakkTile sensor is much cheaper to manufacture.

“Despite decades of research, tactile sensing hasn’t moved into general use because it’s been expensive and fragile,” explained co-creator Leif Jentoft, a graduate student at SEAS, in a news release. “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.”

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Researchers plan to license their technology to companies interested in integrating their TakkTile prefabricated sensors into robots, consumer devices and industrial products. Aside from robotics, Jentoft and his colleague Yaroslav Tenzer, a postdoctoral fellow, envision their sensor being used in a variety of electronic devices. For example, toy manufacturers could make stuffed animals that respond to petting. TakkTile could also be used to design medical grippers gentle enough to separate tissue during laparoscopic surgery.

via Harvard SEAS

Credit: Leif Jentoft