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Giving Robots a Sense of Touch Through Artificial Skin

13 September 2017

Researchers tested the artificial skin on a robotic hand that could sense temperature. Source: University of HoustonResearchers tested the artificial skin on a robotic hand that could sense temperature. Source: University of HoustonA challenge in the field of robotics is getting the machines to recognize a sense of touch--to be able to tell the difference between, say, something hot and something cold.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Houston has developed stretchable electronics that serve as an artificial skin which could be useful in a wide range of biomedical devices.

The process relies on readily available materials and could be scaled up for commercial production using a rubber composite format that enables stretchability without any special mechanical structure. The design allows the electronic components to retain functionality even after the material is stretched by 50 percent.

Traditional semiconductors are brittle and using them in stretchable materials has previously required a complicated system of mechanical accommodations.

"Our strategy has advantages for simple fabrication, scalable manufacturing, high-density integration, large strain tolerance and low cost," said Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston.

The researchers demonstrated the electronic skin on a robotic hand that could sense the temperature of hot and iced water in a cup. The skin was able to interpret computer signals sent to the hand and reproduce the signals as sign language.

"The robotic skin can translate the gesture to readable letters that a person like me can understand and read," Yu said.

The artificial skin is one application but the development could impact soft wearable electronics including health monitors, medical implants and human-machine interfaces. The semiconductor was created using a silicon-based polymer known as polydimethylsiloxane and tiny nanowires to create a solution that hardened into a material which used the nanowires to transport electric current.

Researchers believe enabling elastomeric semiconductors by percolating semiconductor nanofibrils into a rubber will further the development of stretchable semiconductors and move forward a range of applications such as artificial skins, biomedical implants and surgical gloves.

The full research can be found in the journal Science Advances.

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