Sensory finger: Startup teaches robots the feeling of a touch

The device is a gripper that is exclusively powered by artificial muscles and neurons.
Loukia Papadopoulos
PowerON's robotic finger can feel.jpg
PowerON's robotic finger can feel.


What if robots could actually feel? That would make them more efficient at many tasks in industries ranging from space travel to medicine.

A new startup is claiming that the next generation of robotics will feature sensory skins, fabricated muscles, and artificial neurons printed on flexible materials that will allow them to feel, according to a press release published by the organization on Friday.

"We're observing a drastic upward trend in automation across all areas of industry and will soon see more of this in our everyday life," said Dr. Markus Henke, Junior Research Group Leader at TU Dresden's Institute of Semiconductors and Microsystems and CEO of PowerON.

The new development is based on collaborative research conducted by TU Dresden and the University of Auckland in New Zealand that explored the scientific foundations of multifunctional dielectric elastomers in soft robotics as part of a Marie Curie Fellowship awarded by the European Commission. 

Noteworthy breakthroughs

Henke's company PowerON was further founded with the help and support of Dresden's existing grant and venture capital funding and is now achieving some pretty impressive breakthroughs.

"Once the technology is advanced enough, we expect to encounter robots not just in the industry but also in our daily lives," said Henke. 

Now, the engineer wants to use his startup's very first product – a type of sensory fingertip for industrial robots – to substantially expand on robots' fields of application and allow conventional robot grippers to perform more delicate tasks. 

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The applications are many such as handling fragile items, removing rubber products from injection molds, harvesting fruits, and vegetables, or even being implemented at home and in medical care. 

Henke's team is ready to begin initial practical tests in the coming weeks of the first demonstrator to exhibit the interplay of touch-sensitive skin, manufactured muscles, and artificial neurons.

The device is a gripper that is exclusively powered by artificial muscles, which are, in turn, controlled by artificial neurons. It is further equipped with a tactile skin that can feel how and where an object is being gripped.

A fruitful partnership

To achieve this impressive milestone, PowerON worked closely with TU Dresden and is a partner in the large-scale research project "6G-life." 

"This partnership is a testament to the cooperation potential between science and industry and how such collaborative projects can contribute to quickly transferring scientific findings into commercial products," said Prof. Andreas Richter, Chair of Microsystems and Director of the Institute of Semiconductors and Microsystems.

In November of 2021,  Meta AI researchers, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, announced the development of a new skin that could allow robots to feel. It was called ReSkin and it leveraged advances in machine learning and magnetic sensing to offer a versatile solution that is ideal for repeated long-term use. 

In July 2021, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) developed a smart foam material that allows robot hands to self-repair and sense objects much like human skin.

The new material, called AiFoam, was made out of a high-elasticity polymer that is infused with microscopic metal particles and tiny electrodes.

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