Stretchy Artificial 'Skin' Could Give Robots a Sense of Touch



Rubber electronics and sensors that operate normally even when stretched to up to 50 percent of their length could work as an artificial skin on robots, according to a new study. They could also give flexible sensing capabilities to a range of electronic devices, the researchers said.
Like human skin, the material is able to sense strain, pressure and temperature, according to the researchers.
Cunjiang Yu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston said the rubber electronics and sensors have a wide range of applications, from biomedical implants to wearable electronics to digitized clothing to "smart" surgical gloves.
Because the rubbery semiconductor starts in a liquid form, it could be poured into molds and scaled up to large sizes or even used like a kind of rubber-based ink and 3D printed into a variety of different objects, Yu told Live Science.
One of the more interesting applications could be for robots themselves, Yu said. Humans want to be able to work near robots and to coexist with them, he said. But for that to happen safely, the robot itself needs to be able to fully sense its surroundings. A robot — perhaps even a soft, flexible one, with skin that's able to feel its surroundings—could work side by side with humans without endangering them, Yu said.
In experiments, Yu and his colleagues used the electronic skin to accurately sense the temperature of hot and cold water in a cup and also translate computer signals sent to the robotic hand into finger gestures representing the alphabet from American Sign Language.
Yu said he and his colleagues are already working to improve the material's electronic performance and stretchiness well beyond the 50 percent mark that was tested in the new study.
"This will change the field of stretchable electronics," he said.

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