New e-skin could allow robots to sense touch and their surroundings

It's a revolutionary step forward for soft robotics.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of the soft robotic skin.jpg
An illustration of the soft robotic skin.

University of Edinburgh 

A team of scientists from Edinburgh has engineered smart electronic skin that could pave the way for soft, flexible robotic devices with a sense of touch, according to a press release by the institution published last week.

Researchers say, "their stretchable e-skin gives robots for the first time a level of physical self-awareness similar to that of people and animals."

The technology could aid in breakthroughs in soft robotics introducing a range of applications, such as surgical tools, prosthetics, and devices to explore hazardous environments.

Unlike traditional rigid robots, soft robots require effective proprioception technology that can sense 3D shapes. Without it, it is hard for these robots to understand their own speed, shape and weight and how these qualities interact with their environment.

The University of Edinburgh has developed a proprietary technology that overcomes this problem and provides soft robots with highly accurate, real-time sensing abilities.

“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,” said Dr. Yunjie Yang of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, who led the study.

The newly-invented e-skin is made of a thin layer of silicone embedded with wires and sensitive detectors. It is just 1mm thick and can be combined with artificial intelligence software to give soft robots the ability to sense things only millimeters away, in all directions, very quickly.

Perceiving robots' shape and movement

“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<’ said Study co-leader Dr. Francesco Giorgio-Serchi, also of the School of Engineering.

Dr. John Lonsdale, Head of Enterprise at EI, whose team is helping the researchers protect and commercialize the technology, added in the press release that the “exciting, cutting-edge innovation” even has “potential in healthcare applications and beyond.”

In January of 2023, collaborative research conducted by TU Dresden and the University of Auckland in New Zealand saw the introduction of sensory skins, fabricated muscles, and artificial neurons printed on flexible materials that will allow robots to feel.

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