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Robots might soon have better dexterity thanks to Stanford University researchers who have created an electronic glove that gives robots a sense of touch and improves their grasping abilities.

Zhenan Bao, a chemical engineer, and her team created the electronic glove, which contains sensors that could provide robots with human-like dexterity in the future. The group published their findings in Science Robotics and showed that the sensors work well enough to enable a robotic hand to touch a berry as well as move a ping-pong ball without breaking any of them.

The electronic glove imitates how human skin layers work together to give hands extreme sensitivity. Humans' outer skin layers have sensors that detect heat, pressure, and other stimuli. The sensors in our fingers and palms coordinate with the spinosum, which is a bumpy microscopic skin sublayer responsible for our sense of touch and dexterity capabilities.

Each sensor located on the fingertip of the glove consist of three flexible layers that work together, including electrically active top and bottom layers. Researchers created a grid of electrical lines that formed small sensing pixels similar to the spinosum skin sublayer. When a robot presses down on an object, stored energy would increase and allows the robot to delicately touch any objects.

Straight after the electronic glove was developed, researchers tested it with a real robotic hand. One experiment involved the glove-wearing robotic hand gently touching a berry, while another experiment had it lift and move a ping-pong ball. In both the experiments, the robot hand was able to handle the objects without damaging or dropping it.

Even though the electronic glove might allow robots to move objects in factories or assist with surgeries in upcoming years, Bao said that more work needs to be done to have the glove automatically apply the right amount of force for safely handing objects. For now, human programming will still be required to give robots this added dexterity.

"This technology puts us on a path to one day giving robots the sort of sensing capabilities found in human skin," said Bao. "We can program a robotic hand to touch a raspberry without crushing it, but we're a long way from being able to touch and detect that it is a raspberry and enable the robot to pick it up."

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