December 1, 2023

Engineers Develop Revolutionary Robot Skin with Multiple Applications in Robotics and Prosthetics

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Honda have collaboratively developed a groundbreaking soft sensor, known as “robot skin,” that is smart, stretchable, and highly sensitive. This innovation has the potential to revolutionize various fields, including robotics and prosthetics.

The sensor skin, when applied to the surface of a prosthetic arm or a robotic limb, provides touch sensitivity and dexterity. This enables machines to perform tasks that were previously challenging, such as picking up delicate objects like soft fruit. The sensor is remarkably similar in texture to human skin, which enhances safety and makes human interactions more lifelike.

Dr. Mirza Saquib Sarwar, the lead researcher and author of the study, explained that the sensor can detect various types of forces, allowing prosthetic or robotic arms to respond to tactile stimuli with high precision. This means that the arm can handle fragile objects like eggs or glasses of water without the risk of crushing or dropping them.

The primary component of this sensor is silicone rubber, the same material extensively used for creating skin special effects in movies. The research team specifically designed the sensor to mimic the buckling and wrinkling properties of human skin, making it even more realistic.

Unlike conventional touchscreens that rely on capacitive touch technology, this sensor uses weak electric fields to detect objects, even from a distance. Its supple nature allows it to sense forces both onto and along its surface, which is crucial for robots that come into contact with people. Dr. John Madden, senior study author and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UBC, emphasized that this unique combination of features is key to the adoption of this technology in human-robot interaction.

The development of this technology was a collaborative effort between UBC and Frontier Robotics, Honda’s research institute. Honda, renowned for its advancements in humanoid robotics, has been innovating in this field for decades. Their extensive experience and expertise have contributed significantly to this breakthrough.

Dr. Madden’s Advanced Materials and Process Engineering Laboratory (AMPEL) at UBC has been at the forefront of flexible sensor research. Frontier Robotics recognized this expertise and expressed enthusiasm about collaborating with the UBC team in developing tactile sensors for robots.

One of the lead authors of the study, Mr. Ishizaki Ryusuke, and chief engineer at Frontier Robotics, mentioned that the new sensor is simple to fabricate, allowing for easy scalability to cover large surface areas and mass production.

Dr. Madden acknowledged that sensors and artificial intelligence are making machines more capable and lifelike, enabling humans to work and interact alongside them. However, there is still much more that can be achieved. Human skin possesses a hundred times more sensing points on a fingertip compared to the current technology, making tasks like lighting a match or sewing fabrics easier. As sensors continue to evolve to become more skin-like and capable of detecting factors such as temperature and damage, there is a growing need for robots to become smarter in determining which sensors to prioritize and how to respond. It is evident that developments in both sensors and artificial intelligence must progress hand in hand.

The breakthrough “robot skin” developed by UBC and Honda researchers represents a significant advancement in the field of robotics and prosthetics. As this technology continues to evolve, it holds the potential to enhance the capabilities of machines and enable them to better interact with humans in various industries.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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