E-skin Enables Robots To Feel Pain, May Improve Future Prosthetic Limbs
Engineers from the University of Glasgow have created an electronic skin (e-skin) that could behave like natural human skin. The highly sensitive e-skin is capable of relaying information about the environment in the blink of an eye. It can also register pain. This development could improve prosthetic limbs by providing prosthetic users with near-human sensitivity to touch.
The prototype is the latest iteration of touch-sensitive robotics. Previous attempts have failed due to issues with relaying and translating large amounts of data into something meaningful.
The human peripheral nervous system inspired this new e-skin design. It begins processing sensations from the point of touch and sends only essential data to the brain. According to the engineers working on the e-skin, this approach in robotics means communication channels are freed up, which prevents the computer from being hampered with excessive sensory information.
The new e-skin prototype uses a grid of 168 synaptic transistors made from zinc-oxide nanowires, which could be spread across a flexible surface. The transistors are deployed across a human-shaped “hand” equipped with skin sensors that allow the robot to differentiate between light and heavy touch.
Enhancing a robot’s sensitivity to pain will facilitate the machine’s trial and error learning. In a statement, Professor Ravinder Dahiya, head of the university’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group, said that this development “could be a real step forward in our work towards creating large-scale neuromorphic electronic skin capable of responding to stimuli.”
Besides creating robotics that could learn to interpret their environment and avoid injury, the e-skin is forecast to be used for prosthetic limbs someday.
In the same statement, Fengyuan Liu, the study’s co-author, said that “this research could be the basis for a more advanced” e-skin that could enable robots to explore and interact with the world in new ways. This could also pave the way for prosthetic limbs capable of “near-human levels of touch sensitivity.”
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