Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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A step toward robots with a human touch

What if you could build a robot someday whose hands had a sense of touch like human hands do? Maybe this ability would help robots tie shoes or build a house of cards -- or perform surgery in the hospital. Many operating rooms already have robots that that play supporting roles during surgery, especially in "minimally invasive surgeries," where the surgeons make tiny incisions and use tiny tools so they can target very specific areas in the body. Patients heal a lot faster from these types of surgeries. Tiny robots that could do more of the work by themselves might perform the next generation of minimally invasive surgeries, but they'll have to be able to "feel" the way human hands do. Scientists have now developed a new type of sensor that can respond to pressure and texture in a way that's comparable to how human fingers feel. Here's how it works. The researchers press an object, say a penny, into a film with special electronic properties. The pressure against the film makes the film glow. The light from the film is captured by a camera that makes an image of the penny. This device is so sensitive that the image of the penny includes details like the wrinkles of President Lincoln's clothing and the letters "TY" in "LIBERTY." Although more research will be necessary before this is possible, the basic idea is that a robot's "hands" might be coated with a film like this, and the camera could be connected to the computer controlling the robot. The robot could then sense different surfaces with the sort of sensitivity that human fingers have. The scientists who designed this sensor are Vivek Maheswari and Ravi Saraf of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. They describe their research in the 9 June 2006 issue of the journal Science.