Artificial 'Hairs' To Enhance Senses Of Robots
Materials scientist He Xiaodong and colleagues at China’s Harbin Institute of Technology have built a device to mimic the fine hairs that cover 95% of our body, hairs that relay sensory information to nerves in the skin.
Instead of hairs the researchers used tiny wires just 30 micrometers thick, about the same as human hair. They embedded rows of the wires in silicon rubber, which acts something like skin.
The wires don’t sense pressure or motion in quite the same way our hairs do. Instead, they respond to changes in a magnetic field when one or more hairs is pushed out of its original position. The wires have a small electrical charge running through them, creating a magnetic field. If they move from their original position, the field changes.
Xiaodong’s group reported an impressive range of sensitivity for the device. It withstood a 50 Newton weight (a little over 11 pounds) and detected a fly. It sensed an object being dragged across it in different directions, and yes, it even sensed a light breeze.
Ray Cummings had a similar idea in his 1931 classic The Exile of Time:
We had gone no more than a hundred feet or so when Migul [the robot] slowed our pace, and began to walk stooped over, with one of its abnormally long arms held close to the ground. The fingers were stiffly outstretched and barely skimmed the floor surface of the tunnel. As we passed through a spot of light I saw that Migul had extended from each of the fingertips an inch-long filament of wire, like finger nails.
The Robot murmured abruptly, "Tugh's vibrations are here. I can feel them. He has passed this way recently... Feel the vibrations?"
"I cannot. My fingers are not that sensitive, Migul."
A faint contempt was in the Robot's tone. "I forgot that you are a man." Then it straightened, and the extended filaments slid back into its fingers.
(Read more about the sensitive robot fingers)
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