If you were trying to remotely operate a robotic hand, it would certainly makes things easier if you could feel what it was touching. Such a system was demonstrated this week at the Amazon re:MARS Tech Showcase, utilizing technology from three separate companies.

At the heart of the setup were two robotic arm-mounted Dexterous Hands, made by Britain's Shadow Robot Company. Spied by New Atlas last month at ICRA 2019, the hand is capable of 24 movements, and features 129 integrated sensors which track factors such as position, force, and pressure. It can hold items weighing up to 5 kg (11 lb).

For this particular demo, the hands were additionally equipped with BioTac tactile sensors manufactured by University of Southern California spinoff company SynTouch. Each sensor incorporates a soft, flexible skin with fingerprint-like ridges, covering a liquid filling. As the skin moves across surfaces, vibrations produced by the ridges resonate through the liquid and are detected by a built-in hydrophone. This allows the sensor to recognize textures, plus it can also sense temperatures.

The BioTec-equipped Dexterous Hands were remotely-controlled by human users wearing a pair of haptic feedback gloves made by Seattle's HaptX. Utilizing motion-tracking technology, the glove is capable of sensing the movements of its wearer's hand and fingers, plus it utilizes 130 microfluidic tactile sensors to deliver a sense of touch by selectively pressing against the skin.

The three products were combined in a project funded by Japanese airline All Nippon Airways, with the re:MARS event in Las Vegas being the first public demonstration of the system. In a recent previous test, a HaptX-wearing user in California was successfully able to touch-type – via the Dexterous Hand – on a computer keyboard located in London.

Possible future applications could include remotely-performed surgery, bomb disposal, or deep-sea engineering.

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