Engineers Develop Breakthrough ‘Robot Skin’

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Researchers from UBC and Honda have developed a new smart, stretchable, and highly sensitive soft sensor, and it is expected to open the door to a wide range of applications in robotics and prosthetics.

The UBC team developed the technology in collaboration with Frontier Robotics, Honda’s research institute (which has been innovating humanoid robotics since the 1980s).

The sensor skin can be applied to the surface of a prosthetic or robotic limb to provide touch sensitivity and dexterity, enabling tasks that can be difficult for machines (such as picking up a piece of soft fruit). Furthermore, the new sensor is soft and skin-like, to make human interactions safer and more lifelike.

According to Techxplore, the sensor is primarily composed of silicone rubber, and the team’s unique design allows it to buckle and wrinkle just like human skin. Dr. John Madden, senior study author and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, explains: “Our sensor uses weak electric fields to sense objects, even at a distance, much as touchscreens do. But unlike touchscreens, this sensor is supple and can detect forces into and along its surface. This unique combination is key to the adoption of the technology for robots that are in contact with people.”

The researchers claim that the new sensor is simple to fabricate so it would be easy to scale to cover large surface areas and to manufacture large quantities.

Dr. Madden noted that human skin has a hundred times more sensing points on a fingertip than their technology does. “As sensors continue to evolve to be more skin-like, and can also detect temperature and even damage, there is a need for robots to be smarter about which sensors to pay attention to and how to respond. Developments in sensors and artificial intelligence will need to go hand in hand.”