Touch Tech Could Make Robots Ticklish
A Georgia Tech researcher holds an array of piezotronic transistors capable of converting mechanical motion directly into electronic controlling signals.
CREDIT: Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek
Hold an egg without breaking it. Feel the wind on your face. Respond to a caress. These are just a few of the rapidly shrinking areas in which humans still have robots beat.
But that will soon change, thanks to breakthrough research that gives robots and electronic devices an extraordinarily nuanced sense of touch.
Piezoelectricity (the prefix comes from the Greek word for “to push”) refers to the type of electric charge created by applying mechanical pressure to crystals and other solid material such as ceramic, bone and certain proteins.
A team of Georgia Tech researchers led by Zhong Lin Wang has found a way to apply the principles of pressure-generated electricity to create a finely tuned electronic sense of touch.
This is achieved through nanowires and piezotronic transistors that the team dubbed taxels. The resulting “taxel arrays” are thin, clear, flexible sheets — they bear a resemblance to dumpling wrappers — that fit to the surface of a robotic limb like a skin. Via nearly microscopic wires, the array is connected to a computer chip that can translate incredibly minute movements, adjustments and observations into piezoelectronic signals and back again.
The technological feat could help make robots more like their creators, Wang said. “When we [humans] touch fire, we know it’s hot. [This technology] can allow robots to have that human sense — in other words, make robots more like humans," he told TechNewsDaily.
Previously, the best way to create an artificial sense of touch involved measuring the resistance with which a motion was met — a conceptually crude, but reasonably effective method. But Wang has been researching better methods of adaptive electronic touch for over 10 years. In 2007, he pioneered the concept of piezotronics in a paper that served as the conceptual groundwork for the taxel arrays.
Wang believes the practical applications for this technology are enormous. Aside from developing robots with the sensitivity of a human and the precision of a computer, taxel arrays could be used to make highly functional prosthetics and “smart” biomedical treatments.
The arrays have security applications too: Wang described a technique called “multidimensional signature recording” in which the speed and pressure exerted at each point in a signature are recorded. So even if an impostor manages to visually replicate your signature, chances are good they won’t know you tend to press down on your downstrokes or accelerate when you cross your T’s.
“This is the beginning of a new era of technology,” Wang told TechNewsDaily.