Tiny robotic fingers let humans interact with insects

Ever wanted to tickle a pill bug?

Konishi et. al./Ritsumeikan University

Human fingers are clearly too big to safely play with bugs, but technology might offer a far gentler option. Scientists at Ritsumeikan University have developed soft robotic "microfingers" that let people interact with insects. The tiny digits (just 0.47in long and 0.12in wide) combine flexible liquid metal strain sensors with pneumatic balloon "muscles" to offer just enough force for touching a bug without hurting it. The human operator controls the miniscule hand with a robotic glove.

To test the technology, researchers used the microfingers to measure the reaction force from a pill bug's legs and torso. The creature's 10 millinewtons of pushback from the legs lined up with previous estimates — a figure that science couldn't directly verify until now.

The technology could be helpful for studying insect forces like walking or flying (and yes, the temptation to tickle a bug is there). However, the team also sees the invention as potentially useful for other micro-scale interactions, particularly with the help of augmented reality glasses that could provide a clearer view. Future versions could one day help doctors directly interact with bacteria and viruses.

The challenge, as with many scientific inventions, is translating the discovery to a practical product. The Ritsumeikan team warned that this is a proof of concept and a "representative study." It could be a while before the technology is thoroughly tested, let alone ready for mass production. All the same, this hints at a future where humans can grab and poke the smallest objects in a very natural way.