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Robotic finger: I, handle this

Posted: 22 Sep 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:tactile sensor? robot? MIT? GelSight?

A team of researchers from MIT and Northwestern University developed a novel tactile sensor, which enabled a robot to clutch a thumb drive hanging freely from a hook, and subsequently plug it into a USB port.

The sensor is an adaptation of a technology called GelSight, which was developed by the lab of Edward Adelson, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Vision Science at MIT, and first described in 2009. The new sensor isn't as sensitive as the original GelSight sensor, which could resolve details on the micrometre scale. But it's smaller!small enough to fit on a robot's gripper!and its processing algorithm is faster, so it can give the robot feedback in real time.

Industrial robots are capable of remarkable precision when the objects they're manipulating are perfectly positioned in advance. But according to Robert Platt, an assistant professor of computer science at Northeastern and the research team's robotics expert, for a robot taking its bearings as it goes, this type of fine-grained manipulation is unprecedented.

"People have been trying to do this for a long time," Platt says, "and they haven't succeeded because the sensors they're using aren't accurate enough and don't have enough information to localise the pose of the object that they're holding."

The researchers presented their results at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this week. The MIT team!which consists of Adelson; first author Rui Li, a PhD student; Wenzhen Yuan, a master's student; and Mandayam Srinivasan, a senior research scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering!designed and built the sensor. Platt's team at Northeastern, which included Andreas ten Pas and Nathan Roscup, developed the robotic controller and conducted the experiments.

GelSight sensor

Armed with the GelSight sensor, a robot can grasp a freely hanging USB cable and plug it into a USB port. Source: Melanie Gonick, MIT

Synesthesia

Whereas most tactile sensors use mechanical measurements to gauge mechanical forces, GelSight uses optics and computer-vision algorithms.

"I got interested in touch because I had children," Adelson says. "I expected to be fascinated by watching how they used their visual systems, but I was actually more fascinated by how they used their fingers. But since I'm a vision guy, the most sensible thing, if you wanted to look at the signals coming into the finger, was to figure out a way to transform the mechanical, tactile signal into a visual signal!because if it's an image, I know what to do with it."

A GelSight sensor!both the original and the new, robot-mounted version!consists of a slab of transparent, synthetic rubber coated on one side with a metallic paint. The rubber conforms to any object it's pressed against, and the metallic paint evens out the light-reflective properties of diverse materials, making it much easier to make precise optical measurements.


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