Gone were the days when robots had hard hands. A new innovation by researchers at Cornell University has developed a soft robot that can feel the surroundings the same way humans do.

The Gentle Bot's soft robot hands has a human touch. The researchers have outlined the invention in detail in the journal Science Robotics.

The project was led by Robert Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator of Organic Robotics Lab.

The paper "Optoelectronically Innervated Soft Prosthetic Hand Via Stretchable Optical Waveguides" talks about the ability of soft robot hand in not only touching fragile items but also in making sense of the texture of things it holds.

"Our human hand is not functioning using motors to drive each of the joints; our human hand is soft with a lot of sensors ... on the surface and inside the hand," stated Huichan Zhao, lead author and doctoral student in mechanical engineering.

According to Zhao, soft robotics offer a chance to make a soft hand that is closer to a human hand.

Many warehouses are already making use of soft robotic technology for handling food and other items, but Cornell's hand is special because it can handle more delicate items. It was amply demonstrated by Gentle Bot by picking up the softest and ripest tomatoes from a bunch after feeling their shape and texture.

How Gentle Bot Functions

To understand the functional dynamics of soft robotic hand, researchers call for visualizing a balloon that is human hand-shaped with light running through bent waveguides. Waves are carried inside pipes. As soon as the hand comes into contact with something, the waveguides bend, distortion of light takes place, and data on what the hand is touching are relayed.

The merit is that Gentle Bot breaks the convention that robotic hand must be made of a material that can conduct electricity. Gentle Bot achieves the sense of touching from optical waveguides containing LEDs embedded in the pneumatic fingers that are mounted on a rigid palm where photodiodes with internal optical cords act as the nerves.

Gentle Bot has sensors integrated within the body and enabled to detect transmissions through the robots' thickness, explained Zhao while emphasizing that its function is different from other robots that are wired from outside.

Cost-Effective Robot Creation

In terms of cost too, Gentle Bot scores well, as it can be made with cheaper materials.

A traditional robot's rigid parts have to be made of metals so it can be powered by joints and motors to allow the robotic hand to make sense of things and pass electricity.

Joshua Lessing, director of R&D at the company Soft Robotics, said there is "a tremendous unmet need here." Soft robot grippers of his company are in good demand at factories for sorting and packing vegetables and picking up things for online order servicing.

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