In an effort to increase human-robot cooperation, University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) researchers have patented a new smart skin technology. The skin will enhance a robot’s sense of touch to the point where it surpasses a human’s tactile sensitivities.
“The idea is to have robots work better alongside people,” says Zeynep Çelik-Butler, UTA electrical engineering professor. “The smart skin is actually made up of millions of flexible nanowire sensors that take in so much more information than people’s skin. As the sensors brush against a surface, the robot collects all the information those sensors send back.”
According to Çelik-Butler, the malleable, self-powered sensors are made of zinc oxide nanorods, each measuring about 0.2 microns in diameter. For reference, a human hair measures 40 to 50 microns.
In order to withstand harsh environments, the sensors were packaged in a moisture-resistant and chemical polyimide. The resultant tactile sensing layer allows robots to notice changes in temperature and surface inconsistencies, which strengthens real-time safety decisions.
The smart skin may find a home in the medical field, acting as an adhesive on prosthetics to provide patients with a sense of feeling. If the skin was weaved into a soldier’s uniform, it could also help detect harmful chemicals in the air, or be used for fingerprint identification.
“These sensors are highly sensitive and if they were brushed over a partial fingerprint, the technology could help identify who that person is,” says Çelik-Butler. “Imagine people being able to ascertain a person’s identity with this hairy robot, as my students call it.”
“Robots are the here and now,” says Teri Schultz, director of technology management in the UTA Office of Research. “We could see this technology develop with the next generation of robots to allow them to be more productive in helping people.”
The research leading up to this tech helped form a paper titled, “Self-Powered Tactile Pressure Sensors Using Ordered Crystalline ZnO Nanorods on Flexible Substrates Toward Robotic Skin and Garments,” published in a 2015 issue of IEEE Sensors Journal.
You can see a piece of the smart skin technology in the image below.