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"Touchy Feely" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Stanford researchers have developed an electronic glove that bestows robotic hands with some of the manual dexterity humans enjoy. The research team demonstrated that the sensors work well enough to allow a robotic hand to touch a delicate berry and handle a ping-pong ball without squashing them, and the team believes this technology puts us on a path to one day giving robots the sort of sensing capabilities found in human skin.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Gettin' touchy.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Now a "touching" story about robots. When it came to giving them manual dexterity similar to humans, researchers could never quite put their finger on it. (Sound effect: cartoon effect) Until a Stanford University team developed a technology that fits like a glove. Because it is one -- with sensors that mimic some aspects of human touch.

Attached to the glove's fingertips, the sensors simultaneously measure intensity and direction of pressure -- two of the most important qualities in achieving manual dexterity. Which, by the way, we take for granted: swiping (Sound effect: swoosh), typing (Sound effect: type), squeezing (Sound effect: squeeze), seizing (Sound effect: swipe), picking (Sound effect: guitar), sticking (Sound effect: stuck), clicking (Sound effect: finger snaps).

The electronic glove imitates the way layers of human skin work together to give our hands their extraordinary sensitivity.

The researchers placed their three-layered fingertip sensors on a rubber glove and put it on a robotic hand. Success! The hand could be programmed to be gentle enough to touch a delicate raspberry without damaging it and lift and move a ping pong ball without crushing it.

The team hopes to develop an advanced version that automatically applies just the right amount of force to handle objects safely, without having it be pre-programmed.

I say this new technology is right at our fingertips.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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