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Inexpensive robotic tactile sensor based on tiny barometers

HARVARD researchers have developed an inexpensive tactile sensor for robotic hands, based on a tiny barometer.

Designed by researchers in the Harvard Biorobotic Laboratory at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the TakkTile sensor fulfils functions similar to high-end robotic pressure sensing technology, but makes it more accessible to tinkerers, inventors and academics.

Using conventional technology, it costs around US$16,000 to implement tactile sensing on a robotic hand. Since Takktile is based on simpler and cheaper fabrication methods, it is better suited for general use.

The researchers took a tiny barometer, then added a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to it, protecting it from as much as 25 pounds of direct pressure. The Takktile can survive a strike from a hammer or a baseball bat, but remains sensitive enough to detect a very slight touch.

When the Takktile is added to a mechanical hand, the robot knows what it is touching. It can, for example, pick up a balloon without popping it, or pick up a key and use it to unlock a door.

Beyond robotics, the TakkTile sensor could be used in a range of electronic devices, such as touch-sensitive toys, and gentle laparoscopic grippers for use during surgery.

The sensors can be built using relatively simple equipment. The patented process relies on standard methods used in printed circuit board fabrication, along with access to a vacuum chamber. Tiny barometers are available off-the-shelf for low cost, since they are widely used in cell phones and GPS units that can sense altitude.

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