A Sense of Touch: Electronic Skin for Robots

No longer an acute thought of science fiction, electronic skin has become an exciting technological platform for medical enthusiasts. The highly elastic wearable e-skin, made from hydro-allergic bio-tech material, has been developed to monitor patients’ health and progress over a period of time without any added discomfort or stress. Although crude forms of e-skin technology started since the 1980s, the concept of integrating this innovative project with artificial intelligence and robots is very new, and yet, an eventual reality.

Indeed, a new e-skin prototype has been created to allow robots and prosthetics a sense of touch.  Developed by a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS), the robotic e-skin prototype will almost contest to existing human skin models, as it is equipped with a specially made Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES). In addition, the team claimed that the ultra-responsive prototype was faster than a human’s sensory nervous system.

Medical AI devices, as advanced as they may be, fail to have a true interaction with the human patient. This can pose a problem for patients who rely on prosthetic limbs, for example. However, the NUS team created this new e-skin with that concern in mind.

Assistant Professor of the Department of Materials, Science and Engineering at NUS, Benjamin Tee, explains further on the idea:

“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake. Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking. Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well.”

Using the ACES system, a robot would be able to detect touch up to 1,000 times faster than the regular human sensory system, that is, physical contact could be felt in less than 60 nanoseconds – the fastest ever to be recorded in biotechnology. The system can further detect common functions as well like shapes, hardness or the texture of objects within about 10 milliseconds, which is faster than the blink of an eye.

With such an extraordinary feat achieved, the NUS team can go further in future projects by developing even more intelligent robots that will be able to perform a range of exceptional tasks from the very basic to more daring operations like disaster recovery.

References:

  1. New e-skin innovation gives robots and prosthetics an exceptional sense of touch, 2019, ScienceDaily
  2. Electronic skin could give robots an exceptional sense of touch, July 2019, RobotReport
  3. Innovations in Electronic Skin, 2017, AABE
  4. Wearable E-Skin To Continuously Monitor a Person’s Health, November 2018, STRAMMER