Robots have come a long way since their first technological beginnings, but they have still not found a way to emulate the human hand’s incredible dexterity.

 Researchers from Yale University and the University of Connecticut have taken a major step towards that goal by developing an artificial fingertip with tactile sensation capabilities. This artificial fingertip, which was presented at the June 2017 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, permits robots to manipulate objects almost as well as a humans.

What Are Tactile Sensations?

Tactile sensation, sometimes referred to as somatosensation, pertains to the feeling of touch in response to tissue stimulation. When you are able to feel textures, pressure, and temperature on the skin, that’s tactile sensations. Those sensations are generated from a variety of receptors that collect information from the environment and then send these signals to the brain.

How Does the Artificial Fingertip Work?

In order to make a robot feel like a human, the fingertip needs to have its own sensors. The artificial fingertip created by Yale and the University of Connecticut has four layers that work together to provide robots with tactile sensation capabilities. The first layer is made of flexible rubber, which allows the fingertip to deform and conform to different objects. The second layer is a liquid metal antennae array that is ultrathin and laser-etched with sensors that measure changes in electrical fields. These sensors can detect even the tiniest of changes when the fingertip is in contact with a surface.

The third layer is a porous carbon fiber material that is also laser-etched with hundreds of electrodes. The electrodes can detect both pressure and temperature changes, allowing the finger to differentiate between temperatures. Finally, the fourth layer is a piezoelectric membrane that can detect and measure vibrations. This layer helps the robot to differentiate between textures and surfaces.

Importance of Artificial Fingertip for Robots

The artificial fingertip provides robots with the ability to sense objects in the same way a human hand does. This tactile sensation capability allows robots to manipulate objects much more accurately and precisely. It also helps them to perform tasks that would normally require considerable manual dexterity, such as assembling different types of parts, picking up and placing objects in the right places and identifying objects through tactile recognition.

In addition, the fingertip can be used in both exploration and medical applications. It can be used to explore terrain and debris, potentially helping search and rescue teams to locate survivors in disaster sites. In medical applications, doctors can use the fingertip to examine and feel for abnormalities in tissue that might be hard for them to identify with just the eyes.

Testing the Artificial Fingertip

In order to test their fingertip, the researchers pitted the robots against human demonstrations of dexterity. The human demonstrations included finger motions, finger placements and tactility. The robots were tested on their ability to reproduce the same movement and designs that the human participants were asked to make. The robots were able to accurately reproduce the motions, outperforming the human participants.

Future Uses of Artificial Fingertip

The application of the artificial fingertip is far-reaching. Its uses can range from manufacturing to nursing assistance to military applications. In the manufacturing field, robots that are equipped with this type of fingertip can be used for precision and accuracy in assembly and manufacture of complex parts. In nursing assistance, tactile sensation capabilities would allow robots to perform tasks such as repositioning patients, collecting sensitive medical information, or providing assistance in situations where manual interaction is needed. In military contexts, tactile sensation can prove quite useful for robots performing explosives disarmament, surveillance, or search and rescue missions.

The artificial fingertip presented by Yale University and the University of Connecticut researchers is a huge step in providing robots with humanoid dexterity. By equipping robots with tactile sensation capabilities, robots can identify objects, determine their texture and terrain, and precisely manipulate them. These capabilities could play an important role in many fields in the future, from manufacturing to military applications, and ultimately lead to a more advanced humanoid robot.