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Robotic hands which could spell the end for fruit pickers developed by Stanford scientists

Researchers in the US have developed electronic gloves designed to give robots an improved ability to touch and grasp delicate objects in a similar way to human hands.

The technology is likely to be useful for companies developing farming robots, which need to be able to handle delicate crops without damaging them.

Professor Zhenan Bao, a chemical engineer, and her team developed a glove which includes sensors in its fingertips that measure the intensity and direction of pressure. The glove imitates the way that layers of skin in the human hand work together to make them sensitive to pressure.

"This technology puts us on a path to one day giving robots the sort of sensing capabilities found in human skin,” Professor Bao said.

Robots are skilled at basic tasks but struggle to judge the correct amount of pressure needed to exert when lifting up delicate items. This means that to date they have been largely unsuitable for use in agriculture, except in cases where crops are well-suited to rough handling.

Professor Bao’s glove was used to touch a berry without squashing it and could also lift a ping pong ball without crushing it.

Handling items like berries and other food is important for robots as companies have spent millions of pounds in funding on developing robotic arms to pick fruit and vegetables without damaging them.

The current version of the glove developed by the researchers requires them to programme robotic hands which are outfitted with the sensors.

However, Professor Bao hopes to make a more advanced system in the future.

"We can programme a robotic hand to touch a raspberry without crushing it, but we're a long way from being able to touch and detect that it is raspberry and enable the robot to pick it up,” she said.

Many universities and private companies such as Amazon and Toyota are researching how to develop systems which would allow robots to delicately grip items.

Amazon runs a yearly robotics competition which tasks entrants with developing prototype robots that could be used in the company’s warehouses. The 2016 winner was a team from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands which created a robot that used a combination of suction and a claw to grasp items.


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