Zurich – Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are seeking to develop low-cost tactile sensors. The sensors give feedback on how much force is required to securely grip an object. Robots can therefore learn how to grasp fragile objects as well.

Using our sense of touch, humans instinctively know how much force is necessary to securely grasp an object, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) explains in a press release. Researchers at ETH are working to develop low-cost sensors that could also help robots to develop a sense of touch.

The sensor developed by the researchers is primarily made from “an elastic silicon skin with colored plastic microbeads and a regular camera affixed to the underside”, the ETH writes. When it comes into contact with an object, an indentation appears in the silicone skin which therefore changes the pattern of the microbeads. This distortion is recorded by the sensor camera.

“Conventional sensors register the applied force at only a single point”, explains Carlo Sferrazza, ETH researcher, in the press release. He adds: “By contrast, our robotic skin lets us distinguish between several forces acting on the sensor surface, and calculate them with high degrees of resolution and accuracy”. The sensor is even able to detect and differentiate between vertical pressure forces as well as lateral shear forces.

The prototype developed by the researchers is 1.7 centimeters thick and covers an area of 25 square centimeters. However, the group headed up by ETH Professor Raffaello D'Andrea is aiming to developed larger sensor surfaces with a thickness of just 0.5 centimeters. These could be used to develop robot skins but also, for example, in virtual reality games.

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