A soft robot skin developed by the team at Disney Research uses air-filled cavities to cushion collisions and to provide the pressure feedback necessary for grasping objects. Collision tests showed that the inflatable modules reduced the peak force of frontal impacts by 32-52 percent and side impacts by 26-37 percent.
The skin module, as it’s called, features an airtight cavity that is used to detect air pressure with a feedback controller. The modules are 3D printed, and safe to have in use around delicate objects. The researchers say that these modules are able to interact with other soft objects in a “very gentle” fashion. The overall purpose of these soft modules is to allow robots to interact with humans in a way that is safe. “Humans interacting with robots in everyday environments is no longer just science fiction,” said Joohyung Kim, associate research scientist. “Making them soft is particularly important for robots that will interact with children, the elderly, or with patients.
In experiments using only the rigid link, with the outer, inflated skins removed, the researchers were able to use them to grasp a disposable cup. Without the pressure feedback provided by the soft skin, the cup ultimately was crushed, but the the skins attached, the cup could be gripped along with other delicate objects without damaging them.
The Disney researchers have presented their findings and the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2015) on September 28 in Hamburg, Germany. Hopefully the technology could be used not only in robotics but also in contact sensors that would let robots know if they were touching something before causing it any harm.