Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Cambridge, MA, have developed an inexpensive tactile sensor for robotic hands that is sensitive enough to enable a machine to handle objects with sensitivity and dexterity.

Designed by researchers in the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory, the sensor, called TakkTile, is intended to put what would normally be a high-end technology within the grasp of commercial inventors, teachers, and robotics enthusiasts.

TakkTile takes an existing small barometer, which senses air pressure, and adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to it, protecting it from as much as 25 pounds of direct pressure. The researchers say that the chips can even survive a strike from a hammer or a baseball bat. At the same time, it is sensitive enough to detect a very slight touch. The result, when added to a mechanical hand, is a robot that knows what it's touching. It can pick up a balloon without popping it. It can pick up a key and use it to unlock a door.

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. The tiny barometers are available cheaply because they have been widely used in cell phones and GPS units that can sense altitude.

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