Ritsumeikan University develops "soft microfinding tools" for robotics

Ritsumeikan University develops “soft microfinding tools” for robotics

Ritsumeikan University Researchers have developed a soft robotic microfinger that enables interaction with insects through tactile sensing

Human-robot interactions not only allow robots to interact with humans but also with the environment. Small robots, for example, can interact with insects and measure the force they exert while flying or walking.

However, this interaction is not direct, as microbots primarily measure insect behavior. Now, researchers from Japan have developed a tiny, soft robotic finger that allows humans to directly interact with insects. This could enable human-environment interaction at previously inaccessible levels.

Humans have always been fascinated by scales different from their own, from giant objects like stars, planets, and galaxies, to the world of microorganisms: insects, bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic things. While the microscope allows us to view and observe the microscopic world, it is still difficult to interact with it directly.

However, human-robot interaction technology may change all that. Miniature robots, for example, can interact with the environment at much smaller scales than us.

Micro-sensors have been used to measure the forces that insects exert during activities such as flying or walking. However, most studies to date have focused only on measuring insect behavior rather than the direct interaction between insects and microsensors.

Against this background, researchers from Ritsumeikan University in Japan have now developed a tiny, soft robotic finger that can enable a more direct interaction with the microworld.

The study, led by Professor Satoshi Konishi, was published in Scientific Reports On October 10, 2022.

Prof. Konishi says: “A precise tactile finger is made using a flexible liquid metallic tension sensor. The soft pneumatic balloon actuator acts as an artificial muscle, allowing control and movement of the sensor like a finger.

“Using robotic gloves, the human user can directly control the microfinding devices. This type of system allows for safe interaction with insects and other microscopic objects.”

Using a newly developed microrobot setup, the research team investigated the reaction force of a pill bug as a representative sample of an insect. The pill bug was fixed in place with a suction tool and a microfinger was used to apply force and measure the reaction force of the bug’s legs.

The measured interaction force from pill insect legs was about 10 milli-newtons (mN), which is in agreement with previously estimated values. While representative study and proof of concept, this result shows great promise towards achieving direct human interactions with the micro-world.

Moreover, it can have applications even in augmented reality (AR) technology. Using robotic gloves and micro-sensors such as microfingers, many augmented reality technologies related to human-environment interactions can be realized at a microscopic level.

Professor Konishi says: “Using our tiny, stress-sensing fingers, we were able to directly measure the thrusting motion and strength of the legs and torso of a pill bug – something that had previously been impossible to achieve.

“We expect our results to lead to further technological development of micro-interactions with insects, leading to human-environment interactions at much smaller scales.”

In fact, the team at Ritsumeikan University says it has opened the doors to a whole new world that humans interact with, and “we’re also excited to explore it.”

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