When Apple introduced the iPhone back in 2007, the high-end multitouch display ignited a mobile device revolution that now extends through to driving sales for full size and mini tablets this holiday season. The multitouch revolution will extend further into the market in 2013 with more notebooks and desktop displays being touch enabled. But a research and development team over at HP is going far beyond what we've seen in the market thus far regarding touch technology. HP's team is already well into a project that is creating a next generation material made of a sensor fabric that has shape perception. It's a material that could form the first intelligent skin to be applied to robotic hands. It could also be engineered, according to HP, to be integrated into biological environments such as inside a human body as part of prosthetics. And the best news of all is that the US Patent Office recently granted HP the patent for this wild invention.
Robotics, the engineering science and technology of robots, has come a long way since the word "robot" was coined in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, it is still a challenge to replicate or mimic some basic human sensory functions in robotic devices. For instance, it has been very difficult to mimic the sense of touch.
While a human hand could easily sense the shape of an object and other attributes such as temperature and stiffness by simply touching the object, it has not been an easy task for sensors in modern robotic devices to obtain shape information by touch.
Some prior attempts for shape perception by touch are based on MEMS devices for electro-mechanical responses. Such sensing devices have many issues. They are bulky and complicated, and produce small signals that require highly sensitive signal amplification for detection. As a result, they are hardly useful for integration into systems of interest, such as robotic hands.
HP's patent FIG. 3 noted above is a schematic view of a hexagonal flexoelectric flake and electrodes; FIG. 6 is a plot showing the dependence of the polarization of the voltage generated by a boron nitride flexoelectric sheet as a function of the bending direction; and FIG. 7 is a schematic depiction of a robotic hand using sensor fabric patches on its finger tips for touch sensing.
As just one example of the many possible uses of the sensor fabric, HP's patent FIG. 7 shows a robotic hand that uses the sensor fabric for touch sensing. The robotic hand has a plurality of fingers. Patches 256-260 of the sensor fabric are attached to the tips the fingers. When the robotic hand holds an object with its fingers (such as a light bulb), the sensor fabric patches of the fingers holding the object are pressed against the object surface. The bias voltages between the edges of the flexoelectric flakes in those sensor fabric patches 256-258 could be measured to determine the local object surface shape at each patch. By moving the robotic fingers along the object surface, the overall shape of the object could be mapped out. This mimics how a human hand senses the shape of an object.
It sure sounds like it's something that a future NASA robot will be able to use on distant missions. According to HP, the sensor fabric will be able to allow touch sensing to detect the shape, texture, stiffness, and other attributes of an object.
On a more down to earth application, think of the news story that broke earlier this month. A company by the name of Hon Hai who makes Apple's iPhone, Microsoft Xbox and computers for such companies as Dell and HP is looking to deploy one million robots by 2014. And that's just one plant. The future of advanced robotic arms that have greater sensibilities will be highly sought. According to Hon Hai executives, "Many complicated processes, such as polishing the iPhone's metal casing, still require human attention." That may be true today, but with HP's latest invention coming to market in the not-too-distant future, maybe not for long.
HP's invention was originally filed for in Q4 2009 and granted to them by the US Patent Office in Q4 2012.
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