Tactile sensors for robots are under development at the University of Munich. The intent is to supplement the information that a robot can gather through cameras, scanners and gripping hands. Take a look at the video provided below to see how these hexagonal tactile sensors can be used to shape the behavior of robots.
(Tactile sensor module)
The centerpiece of the new robotic shell is a 5 square centimeter hexagonal plate or circuit board. Each small circuit board contains four infrared sensors that detect anything closer than 1 centimeter. “We thus simulate light touch,” explains Philip Mittendorfer, a scientist who develops the artificial skin at the Institute of Cognitive Systems at TUM. “This corresponds to our sense of the fine hairs on our skin being gently stroked.”
There are also six temperature sensors and an accelerometer. This allows the machine to accurately register the movement of individual limbs, for example, of its arms, and thus to learn what body parts it has just moved. “We try to pack many different sensory modalities into the smallest of spaces,” explains the engineer. “In addition, it is easy to expand the circuit boards to later include other sensors, for example, pressure.”
Plate for plate, the boards are placed together forming a honeycomb-like, planar structure to be worn by the robot. For the machine to have detection ability, the signals from the sensors must be processed by a central computer. This enables each sensory module to not only pass its own information, but to also serve as a data hub for different sensory elements. This happens automatically, ensuring that signals can go in alternative ways if a connection should fail.
(Tactile sensor module video)
This research represents the initial stages of development that will lead to robots that are able to safely work among people in a complex environment (like a crowded room). Science-fictional robots require this technology to function.
Update 8-Dec-2011: In Roger Zelazny's Hugo award-winning 1966 novel This Immortal gives sf fans a glimpse of this idea. A wrestling robot uses special skin described as a radar mesentery to sense its opponent. End update.