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Fraunhofer develops environment-sensing robot skin

Posted: 17 Aug 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:robots? sensor system? artificial skin?

A sensor system comprising conductive foam, textiles and an intelligent evaluation circuit are enabling mobile robots to function around people in laboratories. The sensor system locates contact points and can tell the difference between strong and gentle contact. It can sense people immediately.

The skin can be equipped with varying shapes, sizes and number sensor cells implemented to suit the application. The sensor cells detect any contact. The more sensor cells, the more precisely a point of collision can be detected. A sensor controller processes the measured values and transmits them to the robot, or to a computer, machine or production line.

This tactile sensor technology is enabling robots to be used in new fields of application such as the manufacturing, household and healthcare sectors. Aside from the robot skin, it can also be integrated into the floor.

The sensor system was designed in 2008 by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg, Germany. It was first used for an assistant robot LiSA, which is tasked to stock incubators and measuring instruments in biotech labs, relieving lab staff from the work. Patented in 2008, the sensor system has been refined many applications such as industrial robots and flooring. The sensor system also integrates damping elements that diminishes collisions by cushioning impacts.

"Our artificial skin can be adapted to any complex geometry, including curved or very flat. We use large-area floor sensors to define safety zones that people may not enter," reports Markus Fritzsche, researcher at the Fraunhofer IFF. "These areas can be changed dynamically. The tactile skin now also functions as an input medium, for instance, to guide robots by translating contact into motion. This requires little force. If I touch the robot, it attempts to evade the pressure. Thus, I can direct even a 200kg robot in the desired direction," he adds.

The sensor system is also available in breathable and waterproof variants, thus, "this opens entirely new fields of application such as medical engineering or manufacturing," according to Fritzsche. 'Pressure sensitive flooring is ideal for monitoring workspaces in factories or instantly registering fallen patients in a nursing home for instance. Robots and mobile equipment outfitted with the artificial skin register any collision and brake immediately. In addition, we can provide robot grippers a sense of touch and thus detect whether they are actually gripping something." He adds that "We�ll encounter all sorts of forms of artificial skin in everyday life in the near future."

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