Researchers have developed a camera-based touch sensor that is long, curved, and shaped like a human finger. Their device, which provides high-resolution tactile sensing over a large area, could enable a robotic hand to perform multiple types of grasps. (Image: Courtesy of the researchers)

Imagine grasping a heavy object, like a pipe wrench, with one hand. You would likely grab the wrench using your entire fingers, not just your fingertips. Sensory receptors in your skin, which run along the entire length of each finger, would send information to your brain about the tool you are grasping.

In a robotic hand, tactile sensors that use cameras to obtain information about grasped objects are small and flat, so they are often located in the fingertips. These robots, in turn, use only their fingertips to grasp objects, typically with a pinching motion. This limits the manipulation tasks they can perform.

MIT researchers have developed a camera-based touch sensor that is long, curved, and shaped like a human finger. Their device provides high-resolution tactile sensing over a large area. The sensor, called the GelSight Svelte, uses two mirrors to reflect and refract light so that one camera, located in the base of the sensor, can see along the entire finger’s length.

In addition, the researchers built the finger-shaped sensor with a flexible backbone. By measuring how the backbone bends when the finger touches an object, they can estimate the force being placed on the sensor.

A breakdown of the components that make up the finger-like touch sensor. (Image: Courtesy of the researchers)

They used GelSight Svelte sensors to produce a robotic hand that was able to grasp a heavy object like a human would, using the entire sensing area of all three of its fingers. The hand could also perform the same pinch grasps common to traditional robotic grippers.

“Because our new sensor is human finger-shaped, we can use it to do different types of grasps for different tasks, instead of using pinch grasps for everything. There’s only so much you can do with a parallel jaw gripper. Our sensor really opens up some new possibilities on different manipulation tasks we could do with robots,” said Alan (Jialiang) Zhao, a mechanical engineering graduate student and lead author of a paper on GelSight Svelte.

Once they had perfected the design, the researchers tested the GelSight Svelte by pressing objects, like a screw, to different locations on the sensor to check image clarity and see how well it could determine the shape of the object.

They also used three sensors to build a GelSight Svelte hand that can perform multiple grasps, including a pinch grasp, lateral pinch grasp, and a power grasp that uses the entire sensing area of the three fingers. Most robotic hands, which are shaped like parallel jaw drippers, can only perform pinch grasps.

A three-finger power grasp enables a robotic hand to hold a heavier object more stably. However, pinch grasps are still useful when an object is very small. Being able to perform both types of grasps with one hand would give a robot more versatility, he says.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to enhance the GelSight Svelte so the sensor is articulated and can bend at the joints, more like a human finger.

For more information, contact Abby Abazorius at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 617-253-2709.