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Robots get a Human Touch with Nerve-like 'Optical Lace'

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CIOInsider Team

We have indeed taken giant strides with our robotics, particularly with humanoids. We have imitated every possible attribute of humans in robots, through years of collected intelligence and data. With the help of machine learning and AI, scientists were able to wire robots to be able to respond to certain commands and so much so, to express emotions when said or made to see something (like an image). But things get a little bumpy when it comes to imitating human sensorial system. The nerve fibers that we humans have give us the special ability to respond to sight, touch, smell. Thought we could never be able to imitate that into robots. Guess we were wrong. I say, Science never fails to amaze you.

A new synthetic material that creates a linked sensory network similar to a biological nervous system could enable soft robots to sense how they

interact with their environment and adjust their actions accordingly.

Ph.D. student Patricia Xu of the Organics Robotics Lab at Cornell University is credited for the stretchable optical lace material.

A good way to think about it is from a biological perspective. A blind person can still feel because they have sensors in their fingers that deform when their finger deforms. Robots don't have that right now.

For the optical lace project, Xu used a flexible, porous lattice structure manufactured from 3D-printed polyurethane. She threaded its core with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors and then attached an LED light to illuminate the fiber.

Upon pressing the lattice structure at various points, the sensors were able to pinpoint changes in the photon flow. When the structure deforms, you have contact between the input line and the output lines, and the light jumps into these output loops in the structure, so you can tell where the contact is happening. The intensity of this determines the intensity of the deformation itself.

XU’s research paper said that the optical lace would not be used as a skin coating for robots, but would be more like the flesh itself. Robots fitted with the material would be better suited for the health care industry, specifically beginning-of-life and end-of-life care, and manufacturing.

Though the optical lace does not yet have as much sensitivity as a human fingertip, the material is more sensitive to touch than the human back. The material is washable, too, which leads to another application: the lab that invented this has launched a startup company to commercialize Xu's sensors to make garments that can measure a person's shape and movements for augmented reality training. We can leave that for our next discussion. Until then, chew on this new entrant in robotics.

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