Home > Smart Living > Innovation > This robot skin could give machines a sense of touch

This robot skin could give machines a sense of touch

Engineers from the University of British Columbia, with Honda, have created a smart soft sensor that can improve prosthetics and enhance human-robot interaction

The UBC sensor is supple and can detect forces into and along its surface.(Credit: UBC Applied Science/Paul Joseph)

By Team Lounge

LAST PUBLISHED 28.12.2023  |  12:00 PM IST

Could machines – say, a humanoid robot -- have a sense of touch like humans? It might become possible in the near future.

Engineers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), in collaboration with researchers at Honda, have created a smart soft sensor that can improve prosthetics and enhance human-robot interaction. According to the engineers, this smart, stretchable and highly sensitive soft sensor opens the door to a wide range of applications in both robotics and prosthetics.

TRENDING STORIES

Also read: Meet Astro, Amazon's home robot that will follow you around

According to a news release from UBC, when applied to the surface of a prosthetic arm or a robotic limb, this sensor skin provides touch sensitivity and dexterity, enabling tasks that can be difficult for machines such as picking up a piece of soft fruit. The sensor is also soft to the touch, like human skin, which helps make human interactions safer and more lifelike, the release explains.

“Our sensor can sense several types of forces, allowing a prosthetic or robotic arm to respond to tactile stimuli with dexterity and precision. For instance, the arm can hold fragile objects like an egg or a glass of water without crushing or dropping them," study author Dr Mirza Saquib Sarwar, who created the sensor as part of his PhD work in electrical and computer engineering at UBC’s faculty of applied science, says in the release. The findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports earlier this year.

The sensor is primarily made of silicone rubber -- the material used to make skin special effects in movies. But the team designed it in a unique way to give it the ability to buckle and wrinkle, just like human skin.

This is how the sensor functions. “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 adoption of the technology for robots that are in contact with people," Dr. John Madden, senior study author and a professor of electrical and computer engineering who leads the Advanced Materials and Process Engineering Laboratory (AMPEL) at UBC, says in the release.

According to the release, the UBC team developed the technology in collaboration with Frontier Robotics, Honda’s research institute. Honda has a rich history of working with robotics – the Asimo humanoid robot, launched in 2000, is a successful example.

MORE FROM THIS SECTION

view all

The researchers say in the release that the new soft sensor is simple to fabricate, making it easy to scale to cover large surface areas and to manufacture large quantities.

Madden adds that sensors and intelligence are making machines more capable and lifelike, but there is scope for more innovations in this area.

In 2021, researchers in Singapore had developed a smart foam material that allowed robots to sense nearby objects, and repairs itself when damaged, just like human skin.

Also read: When bionic technology offers a helping hand