Robots already have us beat in some ways: They’re stronger, more consistent, and they never demand a lunch break. But when it comes to the senses, machines still struggle mightily. They can’t smell particularly well, or taste (though researchers are making progress on robotic tongues), or feel with their robotic grips—and that’s a serious consideration if we don’t want them crushing our dishes or skulls.
In a lab at Columbia University, engineers have developed a strange yet clever way for robots to feel: Let’s call it the finger of light. It’s got a 3D-printed skeleton embedded with 32 photodiodes and 30 adjacent LEDs, over which is laid a squishy skin of reflective silicone, which keeps the device’s own light in and outside light out. When the robot finger touches an object, its soft exterior deforms, and the photodiodes in the skeleton detect changing light levels from the LEDs. This allows the system to determine where contact is being made with the finger, and the intensity of that pressure. In other words, if you shook this robot’s hand, it wouldn’t feel it, in a traditional sense; it would see it. (Full Article)