The Synthetic Skins That Enables Robots to Feel and Respond to Touch
Wed, April 21, 2021

The Synthetic Skins That Enables Robots to Feel and Respond to Touch

Human beings have about five million skin receptors / Photo Credit: Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz (via Shutterstock)


Robots are taking one step closer in gaining the human sense of touch as researchers last month unveiled a synthetic skin that allows robots to feel and respond to touch, an essential skill when having close contact with humans, reported Neil Lewis and Jenny Marc of financial news website CNN Business. Professor Gordon Cheng, who developed the special skin with his team at the Technical University of Munich, told the outlet, “Currently, robots do not have any sense of touch.”

Robots are capable of exerting forces that could cause serious injuries to humans. Hence, employers need to ensure that the robots are aware of their surroundings and able to navigate around humans. Chiara Bartolozzi, a robotics expert at the Italian Institute of Technology, independent of the research told CNN Business, “Touch enables safe robot operation, by detecting contact with unseen obstacles and giving the possibility to apply the correct force for achieving a task, without damaging objects, people and the robot itself.” This artificial skin could foster a safer collaboration between robots and humans. Perhaps, it could allow robots to become caregivers, companions, and health workers. 

The researchers studied humans before developing the synthetic skin. Each individual has about five million skin receptors, registering what’s happening on the body’s surface and sending signals to the brain. Our nervous system prioritizes new sensations since the brain can’t digest information from each receptor simultaneously. To mimic this process, the researchers covered H-1, a human-size autonomous robot, with 13,000 sensors from shoulder to toe. The sensors can detect acceleration, temperature, proximity, and pressure. 

Cheng explained that the above-mentioned factors are “fundamental to sense” in human beings, which makes interactions between humans safe. The researchers are currently developing smaller sensors that could be manufactured in bulk. However, some scientists are skeptical of its scalability, as the high cost and fragility of sensors is a major roadblock for mass production,  Etienne Burdet, a professor of human robotics at Imperial College London, informed CNN Business.     

Bob Doyle, vice president of the Robotic Industries Association, said to the outlet that such technologies are still a long way from being applied in practical settings. For now, human safety will come first.