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Robotic skin gets a better sense of touch

Robotic skin on finger
Bio-inspired sensor skin developed by University of Washington and UCLA engineers can be wrapped around a finger or any other part of a robot or prosthetic device to help convey a sense of touch. (UCLA Engineering Photo)

The androids in “Blade Runner” sometimes seem more human than humans, but to feel tears in the rain, you need a sense of touch. Now researchers are closing in on just that: robotic skin that feels.

Engineers at the University of Washington and UCLA have developed stretchable, sensor-equipped skin that can be wrapped over robotic fingers, or prosthetic limbs, and provide electrical impulses for tactile feedback.

The aim of the project isn’t to let androids wax poetic, but to help humans handle robotic tools more precisely.

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Brain implant gives robotic hand a sense of touch

Robotic hand
Quadriplegic patient Nathan Copeland watches a sensor-equipped robotic hand reach out. (Credit: UPMC / Pitt Health Sciences)

A dozen years ago, an auto accident left Nathan Copeland paralyzed, without any feeling in his fingers. Now that feeling is back, thanks to a robotic hand wired up to a brain implant.

“I can feel just about every finger – it’s a really weird sensation,” the 28-year-old Pennsylvanian told doctors a month after his surgery.

Today the brain-computer interface is taking a share of the spotlight at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, with President Barack Obama and other luminaries in attendance.

The ability to wire sensors into the part of the brain that registers the human sense of touch is just one of many medical marvels being developed on the high-tech frontiers of rehabilitation.

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Robot hand is so humanlike, it’s almost creepy

160218-hand2
This robot hand closely follows the structure of a human hand. (Credit: Z. Xu and E. Todorov / UW)

You’ve got to hand it to the roboticists at the University of Washington: They’ve built a robotic hand modeled so closely on human anatomy, it’s almost scary.

The hand uses plastic components that are modeled to mimic human bones, with crocheted ligaments, stringy tendons and rubber skin layered on top. Servo motors pull cables to copy the movement of muscles in a real hand.

When you hook up the contraption to sensors placed strategically around a human controller’s arm and hand, the robot appendage can hold a pen, grip a softball or balance a plate with near-human dexterity. IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman says it’s the “most detailed and kinematically accurate biomimetic anthropomorphic robotic hand that we’ve ever seen.”

Here’s the almost scary part …

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Cybathlon turns spotlight on Iron Man tech

Image: Cybathlon
A Cybathlon pilot wearing an electrode-equipped cap uses a brain-computer interface to move an avatar through a computer-generated virtual obstacle course. (Credit: Cybathlon / ETH Zurich)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Imagine a contest for the kinds of technologies that would set Tony Stark’s nuclear-powered heart all aflutter in the “Iron Man” movies: exoskeletons, brain-computer interfaces, stair-climbing wheelchairs and bionic limbs, for example.

You don’t have to imagine it anymore: Swiss organizers are getting ready for the first-ever Cybathlon on Oct. 8 in Zurich.

This is no Hollywood publicity stunt: The Cybathlon is aimed at giving a boost to assistive devices and the millions of people around the world who use them. Fifty-five teams from 23 countries already have signed up for the games, and the organizers have put out the call for more teams to register.

The teams’ pilots will vie in six events that take advantage of exoskeletons, brain-wave controllers, prosthetic arms and legs, powered wheelchairs and muscle-stimulation bikes.

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