Sensitive Robotic Fingers
Although robotics has reshaped and even redefined many industrial sectors, there still exists a gap between machines and humans in fields such as health and elderly care. For robots to safely manipulate or interact with fragile objects and living organisms, new strategies to enhance their perception while making their parts softer are needed. In fact, building a safe and dexterous robotic gripper with human-like capabilities is currently one of the most important goals in robotics.
One of the main challenges in the design of soft robotic grippers is integrating traditional sensors onto the robot’s fingers. Ideally, a soft gripper should have what’s known as proprioception–a sense of its own movements and position–to be able to safely execute varied tasks. However, traditional sensors are rigid and compromise the mechanical characteristics of the soft parts. Moreover, existing soft grippers are usually designed with a single type of proprioceptive sensation; either pressure or finger curvature.
To overcome these limitations, scientists at Ritsumeikan University, Japan, have been working on novel soft gripper designs under the lead of Associate Professor Mengying Xie. In their latest study published in Nano Energy, they successfully used multimaterial 3D printing technology to fabricate soft robotic fingers with a built-in proprioception sensor. Their design strategy offers numerous advantages and represents a large step toward safer and more capable soft robots.
The use of multimaterial 3D printing, a simple and fast prototyping process, allowed the researchers to easily integrate the sensing and stiffness-tuning mechanisms into the design of the robotic finger itself.
“Our work suggests a way of designing sensors that contribute not only as sensing elements for robotic applications, but also as active functional materials to provide better control of the whole system without compromising its dynamic behavior,” says Prof Xie. Another remarkable feature of their design is that the sensor is self-powered by the piezoelectric effect, meaning that it requires no energy supply–essential for low-power applications.