New technology developed by BC mimics human skin, expanding the possibilities for people with prosthetic legs and human-robot interaction.
The invention consists of a thin, stretchy layer of silicone rubber filled with enough sensory points to allow delicate work. When a so-called sensor skin is attached to the fingertips of a prosthetic hand, it suddenly becomes possible to grasp objects such as eggs, champagne flutes, and fruit.
Its creators say the dexterity and sensitivity of the skin could be transformative for people who use prosthetic limbs and for safer robot-human relationships.
“Our sensor uses a weak electric field to sense objects even at a distance, just like a touchscreen. But unlike a touchscreen, this sensor is flexible and can absorb any force that enters its surface. and forces along the surface,” study lead author Dr. John Madden, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release.
It is primarily made of silicone rubber and resembles the skins used in movie special effects. It buckles and wrinkles to give it a realistic appearance, and it’s also as soft as human skin. It can also be easily expanded to cover a much larger area than your hand.
However, it is still not a replacement. According to Madden, human skin has 100 times more sensing points on one fingertip than sensor skin. It is this machine that enables fine motor activities such as lighting a match or threading a needle. Madden said human skin can also sense heat and damage.
“…robots need to get smarter about which sensors they pay attention to and how they respond.”
Madden and a team of UBC researchers collaborated on the invention with Frontier Robotics, Honda’s research arm. In the future, researchers plan to experiment with how well the sensor’s skin can navigate around delicate objects, rather than just safely grasping them.