Microfabricated elastomer tactile sensors for robotic fingertip systems
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Tactile sensing is an important aspect of robotic systems, and enables safe, dexterous robot-environment interaction. The design and implementation of tactile sensors on robots has been a topic of research over the past 30 years, and current challenges include mechanically flexible “sensing skins”, high dynamic range (DR) sensing (i.e.: high force range and fine force resolution), multi-axis sensing, and integration between the sensors and robot. This dissertation focuses on addressing some of these challenges through a novel manufacturing process that incorporates conductive and dielectric elastomers in a reusable, multilength-scale mold, and new sensor designs for multi-axis sensing that improve force range without sacrificing resolution. A single taxel was integrated into a 1 degree of freedom robotic gripper for closed-loop slip detection. Manufacturing involved casting a composite silicone rubber, polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) filled with conductive particles such as carbon nanotubes, into a mold to produce microscale flexible features on the order of 10s of microns. Molds were produced via microfabrication of silicon wafers, but were limited in sensing area and were costly. An improved technique was developed that produced molds of acrylic using a computer numerical controlled (CNC) milling machine. This maintained the ability to produce microscale features, and increased the sensing area while reducing costs. New sensing skins had features as small as 20 microns over an area as large as a human hand. Sensor architectures capable of sensing both shear and normal force sensing with high dynamic range were produced. Using this architecture, two sensing modalities were developed: a capacitive approach and a contact resistive approach. The capacitive approach demonstrated better dynamic range, while the contact resistive approach used simpler circuitry. Using the contact resistive approach, normal force range and resolution were 8,000 mN and 1,000 mN, respectively, and shear force range and resolution were 450 mN and 100 mN, respectively. Using the capacitive approach, normal force range and resolution were 10,000 mN and 100 mN, respectively, and shear force range and resolution were 1,500 mN and 50 mN, respectively.