Computer scientists at Harvard University developed and are taking to market circuits for robotic devices and potentially other electronic products that can sense the slightest application of pressure. The team led by Ph.D. candidate Leif Jentoft and postdoctoral fellow Yaroslav Tenzer in Harvard’s Biorobotics Laboratory started a company to commercialize the technology, and are licensing it through Harvard’s technology transfer office.
TakkTile, as the product and company are called, uses ordinary but miniature barometers configured as micro electro-mechanical systems, that measure air pressure protected by a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber. While the circuits inside a sealed rubber coating can withstand the impact of a baseball bat, a robotic hand configured with these sensors is sensitive enough to pick up a balloon without popping it.
Tactile sensing is not a new idea, but the sensors devised by Jentoft and Tenzer are much less expensive than current technologies, which should make them more attractive to developers of robotic and other electronic systems. The developers were able to slash the cost of the sensors through a process based on standard fabrication methods and miniature barometers currently used in mobile phones and GPS devices to sense altitude.
“It normally costs about $16,000, give or take, to put tactile sensing on a research robot hand,” says Jentoft. “That’s really limited where people can use it.” He adds that “The traditional technology also uses very specialized construction techniques, which can slow down your work.”
TakkTile the company is using a marketing strategy that makes the basic technology plans, code, and tutorials available through open source to quickly get them in the hands of potential developers. The company then sells a basic hardware starter-kit and offers consulting services for a fee. To build commercial applications, however, the technology must be licensed through Harvard’s Office of Technology Development.
“Not everyone has the bandwidth to do the research themselves,” says Tenzer, “but there are plenty of people who could find new applications and ways of using this.” Some of those new applications, beyond robotics, contemplated by TakkTile are medical devices in sensitive surgeries and stuffed animals that can respond to a child’s petting.
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