NASA's Robonaut, designed to perform maintenance and repair work on the International Space Station, has thin, human-size hands capable of wielding a variety of tools. And last year, roboticists at the University of Tokyo developed a hand that can catch a ball projected at 186 mph. These are significant advances, but another critical part of manipulation, roboticists say, is feel. "Our skin is a ridiculously good sensor," observes Oliver Brock, a roboticist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is developing a hand designed to open doors.
At MIT, roboticist Eduardo Torres-Jara is fine-tuning Obrero, a one-armed robot with artificial skin on its fingertips and palm that can not only sense the presence and magnitude of forces applied to it, but the direction from which those pressures are being applied. If a bottle of olive oil were to start slipping out of a robo-chef's hand, the artificial skin would tell the robot how it's falling and allow it to recover its grip before the bottle fell to the floor.