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Coming Soon: Robots With A Light Touch

Coming Soon: Robots With A Light Touch

The next Mars rover, set for launch in 2003, probably won't be a robot with touchy-feely fingers. But Allison M. Okamura, a mechanical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, figures her work on artificial touch will be ready to help NASA explore Mars by 2005.

Robots that can feel shapes and textures could provide important scientific information while exploring places where humans cannot tread. "There has been lots of work on giving robots a sense of touch, so they can manipulate objects in factories, but I'm really interested in touch for exploration," says Okamura.

The fondling of rocks on distant planets with the tactile sensibilities of a human geologist would be just one application for Okamura's research. In the depths of our own terrestrial oceans, the water can be so murky that vision is useless. "You have to rely on touch to feel your way around," she notes. Surgical robots with delicate hands might be able to distinguish between sinews and blood vessels.

Okamura developed her first robot fingers in the late 1990s while she was a graduate student at Stanford University. They used pressure sensors embedded in a rubber "skin." Now, she's working on a design with a rotating ball at the fingertip. It would collect tactile impressions as it rolls across a surface. Identifying shape and size should be feasible in five years, she says. But sensing surface texture is more complicated: That may take a few years longer.