Scientists around the world have been working hard to develop electronic skin: from tattoos that can monitor a patient’s vitals to wearable sensors that can store data and deliver drugs. In addition to human patients, researchers are now creating soft and stretchy electronic skin for robots and prosthetic arms.
If we’re all going to get robots one day to help with our daily chores or even medical care, it’s going to need some tactile sensing: from shape and texture to temperature. These will help the robot detect if a surface is slippery, for example, or if an object is fragile and breakable, so it knows how much force to use when holding it. But for synthetic skin to conform to various surfaces, the electronics need to be bendable; and for the robot to react fast enough, sensory data need to be acquired and transmitted in milliseconds. Here are some designs that are getting close.
A consortium of European scientists have developed Roboskin using off-the-shelf materials. The sensing and electronic components are themselves stiff, but they’re soldered to bendable printed circuit boards. This semi-rigid, tactile skin for robots has already been used to cover the curved arms of the iCub humanoid robot (pictured) developed at IIT in Italy.
Another interesting development is electronic skin that uses organic semiconductor-based thin film transistors from researchers at University of Tokyo as well as Stanford. The particular molecular structure of the semiconductors make them inherently bendy.
Ravinder Dahiya and a University of Glasgow team is developing tactile e-skin using silicon and other such high-mobility materials. To prevent silicon from cracking when it's bent, the team carved silicon nanowires out of bulk wafers and transfer printed them onto flexible plastic substrates, such as a rubbery polymer called polyimide. With further improvements, Dahiya thinks their printable skin could lead to next-generation prosthetic arms that will allow their users to actually feel a light touch.
[Via The Conversation]
Image: jiuguangw via Flickr CC BY-SA