Simulating touch: how robotics is mimicking human sensory abilities

15th November 2023
Sheryl Miles

In a world where we've heard about robots mimicking animals, the question arises: What about simulating touch?

The simulation of human touch in robotics is quickly advancing, and the fields of soft robotics, tactile sensing, and haptic technologies are undergoing remarkable advancements where robots are beginning to mimic human sensory abilities – which holds significant implications for various sectors, particularly healthcare and manufacturing.

Advancements in healthcare

In the sphere of healthcare, the integration of soft and smart materials, robotic mechanisms, and sensors is changing the way robots interact with the world. This transformation holds promise in various healthcare applications, including medical diagnosis, prosthetics, neurorobotics, surgery, and physiotherapy.

One of the key areas where these advancements are making a significant impact is in navigating complex anatomical structures with flexible instruments. Robots are becoming adept at this, enhancing precision and reducing risks during surgical procedures. Additionally, these technologies are elevating the feedback provided to surgeons and doctors, ensuring more accurate diagnoses and surgical interventions.

Furthermore, the development of tactile sensors and haptic systems using compliant and deformable materials allows robots to perceive and interact with their environment through touch. This not only enhances safety but also elevates human-robot interaction to a near-natural and intuitive level.

In the world of prosthetics, researchers are working on tactile sensing and associated algorithms to enable amputees to perceive object properties. This breakthrough is significantly improving the grasp and manipulation capabilities of prosthetic limbs, offering a higher quality of life for those who rely on them.

The integration of soft, tactile, and haptic technologies is also changing surgical training platforms, providing trainees with more realistic and immersive experiences. These innovations collectively promise solutions to improve patient outcomes, enhance the skills of healthcare professionals, and provide personalised and adaptive care.

Impact on manufacturing

In the manufacturing sector, force and tactile sensors are giving robots the ability to manipulate objects with unprecedented precision and sensitivity, especially in less-structured environments. These sensors play a crucial role in various manufacturing processes, including grinding, deburring, sanding, and polishing. Moreover, they assist robots in machine tending, ensuring accurate placement of parts in CNC (computer numerical control) machines.

One remarkable aspect of these technologies is their role in electronics assembly. They are in high demand for tasks that demand exceptional precision and delicacy, such as placing memory modules in computers or attaching glass to phones. This trend is making automation more cost-effective, even in regions where labour costs are rising.

For instance, China has seen the cost-effectiveness of automation, thanks to force and torque sensors. These sensors enable robots to perform tasks that were traditionally executed by human hands, ensuring precision and consistency in the manufacturing process.

The convergence of technology and biology

The simulation of human touch in robotics represents a convergence of technology and biology. In healthcare, it promises to evolve patient care, offering improved outcomes and personalised treatment. In manufacturing, it enhances efficiency and precision, making automation economically viable.

As this technology continues to move forward, its potential applications are likely to expand and further blur the lines between human and machine capabilities.

It is a marked step towards creating more intuitive, human-like interactions between machines and their environments hinting at a future where robots and humans harmoniously collaborate.

With the rapid progress in soft robotics, tactile sensing, and haptic technologies, industries are also changing and being opened up to new possibilities.

Whether in healthcare or manufacturing, these advancements are enhancing precision, and safety in order to benefit society as a whole.

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