Will fingertip helps the robots sense the texture of substances as a human fingertip does? Robots are programmed to lift objects and even perform surgeries but they can never lift or pick an object that they have never touched before. Well, engineers have now come up with a finger tip that helps the robots sense the texture as that of human finger tips.
The researchers at the University of Bristol began designing an artificial fingertip in 2009. Their first fingertip was about the size of a soda can. By 2018, they switched to 3D printing, which made it possible to make the tip and all its components about the size of an adult’s big toe. More recently, the scientists incorporated neural networks into the fingertip, which they call Tac Tip. The neural networks help a robot quickly process what it’s sensing and react accordingly-seemingly just like a real finger.
With respect to human fingertips, a layer of nerve endings deforms when skin contacts an object and tells the brain what’s happening. These nerves send “fast” signals to help us avoid dropping something and “slow” signals to convey an object’s shape.
TacTip’s equivalent signals come from an array of pin like projections underneath a rubbery surface layer that move when the surface is touched. Beneath that array is, among other things, a camera that detects when and how the pins move. The amount of bending of the pins provides the slow signal and the speed of bending provides the fast signal. The neural network translates those signals into the fingertip’s actions, making it grip more tightly for example, or adjust the angle of the fingertip.
In the new work, University of Bristol engineer Nathan Lepora and colleagues put the artificial tip through its paces, testing it the same way researchers assess a person’s sense of touch. They measured the output from the camera as the fingertip touched corduroy like materials that had gaps and ridges of different heights and densities. The researchers found the artificial fingertip matched the neuronal signalling pattern of human beings.
Though the artificial fingertip was not quite sensitive Lepora thinks that resolution will improve once a thinner outer surface is developed.
In a second project, Lepora’s team added more pins and a microphone to TacTip. The microphone mimics another set of nerve endings deep within our skin that sense vibrations felt as we run our fingers across a surface. These nerve endings enhance the ability to feel how rough a surface is.
However, the researchers maintain that fingertips like Tac Tip could enable robots and prostheses to handle objects of all shapes and sizes.
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