Robots with a sense of touch? Scientists create flexible e-skin for ‘soft machines’

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Are humans one step closer to giving robots a true sense of touch? Scientists are developing electronic skin that they hope will assist with surgical procedures and even aid people suffering from mobility issues. The creation of stretchable e-skin also gives “soft robots” a level of physical self-awareness similar to people and animals for the first time. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh say the technology could lead to further breakthroughs in soft robotics by enabling devices to precisely detect their movements in the most sensitive of surroundings.

Soft robots – which scientists build using pliable materials rather than metal or hard plastics – with e-skin could have a range of applications, including surgical tools, prosthetics, and devices which explore hazardous environments while remaining highly flexible. Without e-skin, it is hard for soft robots to understand their own motion and shape, and how these qualities interact with their environment. That poses a major challenge in developing the sensing systems that are essential for robots to carry out precise tasks and interact safely with people.

The Scottish team is the first to develop technology that overcomes this problem and provides soft robots with highly accurate, real-time sensing abilities. Researchers created a flexible e-skin that’s only one millimeter thick, made of a thin layer of silicone embedded with wires and sensitive detectors.

flexible e-skin for soft robots
A single section of flexible e-skin (credit: Yunjie Yang)

Using the e-skin in combination with artificial intelligence, researchers were able to give soft robots the ability to rapidly sense their motions and deformations with millimeter accuracy in three dimensions, in real time. The team tested their e-skin by fitting it to a soft robot arm and found the technology was able to sense a range of complex bending, stretching, and twisting movements across every part of the device.

The study, published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, also involved the University of Hong Kong.

“The perceptive senses endowed to robotic devices by this new technology are similar to those of people and animals. This new level of physical self-awareness represents a step change in the sensing capabilities of soft robots,” says Dr. Yunjie Yang from Edinburgh’s School of Engineering in a university release.

“The flexibility of the technology we have developed means it could be applied to various soft robots to enable them to accurately perceive their own shape and movements. Ultimately, that means we are now closer to making some of the most exciting ideas in soft robotics a reality,” adds study co-leader Dr. Francesco Giorgio-Serchi, also of the School of Engineering.

South West News Service writer Sarah Ward contributed to this report.

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