Giving soft robots feeling


One of the hottest topics in robotics is the field of soft robots, which utilizes squishy and flexible materials rather than traditional rigid materials. But soft robots have been limited due to their lack of good sensing. A good robotic gripper needs to feel what it is touching (tactile sensing), and it needs to sense the positions of its fingers (proprioception). Such sensing has been missing from most soft robots.

In a new pair of papers, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) came up with new tools to let robots better perceive what they’re interacting with: the ability to see and classify items, and a softer, delicate touch. 

“We wish to enable seeing the world by feeling the world. Soft robot hands have sensorized skins that allow them to pick up a range of objects, from delicate, such as potato chips, to heavy, such as milk bottles,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the deputy dean of research for the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. 

One paper builds off last year’s research from MIT and Harvard University, where a team developed a soft and strong robotic gripper in the form of a cone-shaped origami structure. It collapses in on objects much like a Venus' flytrap, to pick up items that are as much as 100 times its weight. 

To get that newfound versatility and adaptability even closer to that of a human hand, a new team came up with a sensible addition: tactile sensors, made from latex “bladders” (balloons) connected to pressure transducers. The new sensors let the gripper not only pick up objects as delicate as potato chips, but it also classifies them — letting the robot better understand what it’s picking up, while also exhibiting that light touch. 

When classifying objects, the sensors correctly identified 10 objects with over 90 percent accuracy, even when an object slipped out of grip.

“Unlike many other soft tactile sensors, ours can be rapidly fabricated, retrofitted into grippers, and show sensitivity and reliability,” says MIT postdoc Josie Hughes, the lead author on a new paper about the sensors. “We hope they provide a new method of soft sensing that can be applied to a wide range of different applications in manufacturing settings, like packing and lifting.” 

In a second paper , a group of researchers created a soft robotic finger called “GelFlex” that uses embedded cameras and deep learning to enable high-resolution tactile sensing and “proprioception” (awareness of positions and movements of the body). 

The gripper, which looks much like a two-finger cup gripper you might see at a soda station, uses a tendon-driven mechanism to actuate the fingers. When tested on metal objects of various shapes, the system had over 96 percent recognition accuracy. 

“Our soft finger can...

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