By Frederik Ebert and Stephen Tian
Guiding our fingers while typing, enabling us to nimbly strike a matchstick, and inserting a key in a keyhole all rely on our sense of touch. It has been shown that the sense of touch is very important for dexterous manipulation in humans. Similarly, for many robotic manipulation tasks, vision alone may not be sufficient – often, it may be difficult to resolve subtle details such as the exact position of an edge, shear forces or surface textures at points of contact, and robotic arms and fingers can block the line of sight between a camera and its quarry. Augmenting robots with this crucial sense, however, remains a challenging task.
Our goal is to provide a framework for learning how to perform tactile servoing, which means precisely relocating an object based on tactile information. To provide our robot with tactile feedback, we utilize a custom-built tactile sensor, based on similar principles as the GelSight sensor developed at MIT. The sensor is composed of a deformable, elastomer-based gel, backlit by three colored LEDs, and provides high-resolution RGB images of contact at the gel surface. Compared to other sensors, this tactile sensor sensor naturally provides geometric information in the form of rich visual information from which attributes such as force can be inferred. Previous work using similar sensors has leveraged the this kind of tactile sensor on tasks such as learning how to grasp, improving success rates when grasping a variety of objects.