This Week In Bots: The Making Robots Touchy-Feely Edition

Robots in movies may be evil more often than good, but they’re becoming part of our lives. And their tech is evolving so that they “feel” more like we do.

nasa robot


This happened recently, and we had to show it to you. NASA’s sort of recreated the look of one of the famous parts of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco with an astronaut’s space suit and Robonaut. 

Bot Vid: Leap Tall Buildings In A Single Bound

Boston Dynamics has a bit of a rep for making scary military bots, but its latest Sand Flea robot is different. While still being designed for military or policing purposes, the tiny robot can leap over high obstructions in a single leap and could almost earn the epithet “cute.”

Bot Vid: Hand Shake Robot


Osaka University is demonstrating its robotic prowess by developing a robotic telepresence hand that can communicate the grip, force, and the body temperature of the remote operator. It’s all about adding a more tactile aspect to telepresence meetings. 

Bot News

Robots at Foxconn. Foxconn’s again in the news because of its plans for revolutionizing its production lines in China, but in this case it’s because CEO Terry Gou has another way to stop employees working in illegal conditions: He wants to add thousands of robots to his factories. 

Robot teachers. The idea of robot teachers has been around a while, but the technology is getting a new spin courtesy of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a $100,000 prize competition to design a better automated “robotic” grading software. The idea is that teachers would assign more writing tasks if they didn’t have to grade them, and this would boost what’s seen as low writing skills in U.S. students.


RoboBonobo. A great ape sanctuary in Iowa has an unusual Kickstarter project underway: It wants to make a remote telepresence bonobo robot which the apes can control to interact with visitors. You may be skeptical, but bonobos are among the smartest great apes and have been taught to communicate using sign language–and the overall goal is to develop a super-clever touchscreen speech app so the apes can communicate with people better. As part of the Kickstarter project, if you fund it with over $500 you can get a Skype session with a bonobo. 

Bot Futures: Tactile Robots

Giving robots human-like touch sensitivity is likely an important goal for the time when robots are more a part of our daily lives. Touch is incredibly important for things you may not imagine–such as detecting when you’re bumping into something gently, or for applying the right amount of force when, for example, helping someone out of bed. 

Robot touch is actually something researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say is a “holy grail” of robotics, and they think they’ve got a technology that could enable it. It’s called Belousov-Zhabotinsky gel, and it’s pretty weird. That’s because if you don’t poke it or stimulate it in any way, it pulsates by itself.

The idea is that by engineering the BZ gel carefully it can be turned into a super-sensitive and soft sensor system for robots so that the machines could work out if their stiff, mechanical limbs are touching something that needs to be handled carefully–or, in the case of bumping into a human accidentally, to know it’s done so without necessarily having to “see” the situation happen and react accordingly.

It seems more and more likely that when robots do become a daily experience for us, they’ll be imbued with slightly human behaviors like touch sensitivity and, indeed, ethics


Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.


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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)