This 3D-Printed Fingertip Helps Robots ‘Feel’ Objects Just Like Humans Do

Date:10 April 2022 Author: Juandre

Robots suck at picking things up. Even in industrial environments—where picking robots are fitted with various types of grippers to maneuver objects, like cans, on an assembly line—they cannot decipher between items of different shapes, sizes, and hardnesses. Unlike humans, which use visual, motor, and sensory skills to feel and pick up items, even the best robots have limited resources for the task. Cameras, actuators, and motors help, but a sensory system that could imbue robots with improved dexterity and tactile feedback would be a game-changer.

Researchers at the University of Bristol think they have a solution: 3D-printed fingertips that can help robots “feel” what they’re interacting with. The technology, described in two new papers published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on Wednesday, could mean the difference between machines beating humans at virtual chess, and machines being able to actually pick up and maneuver real chess pieces.

cut through section on the 3d printed tactile skin
Cut-through section on the 3D-printed tactile skin. The white plastic is a rigid mount for the flexible black rubber skin. Both parts are made together on an advanced 3D printer. The pins on the inside of the skin replicate dermal papillae that are formed inside human skin.UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL
robotic hand with a 3d printed tactile fingertip on the pinky finger
Robotic hand with a 3D-printed tactile fingertip on the little (pinky) finger. The white rigid back to the fingertip is covered with the black flexible 3D-printed skin.

“We found our 3D-printed tactile fingertip can produce artificial nerve signals that look like recordings from real, tactile neurons,” Nathan Lepora, professor of robotics and AI at the University of Bristol’s Department of Engineering Maths, says in a prepared statement.

Humans experience the sense of touch through nerve endings in the skin called “mechanoreceptors,” which relay stimuli like touch, pressure, and shape to our brains. The most sensitive ones are found in the top layer of the dermis (the tissue just below the skin at the surface) in non-hairy areas like the palms, lips, and of course, the fingertips. Mechanoreceptors are just one type of nerve ending in a larger system that controls our sense of touch, called the somatosensory system. The other receptors include thermoreceptors (which signal temperature), pain receptors, and proprioceptors (which help you sense parts of your body in relation to one another.

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