A team of nine Singapore researchers from the National University of Singapore has developed an electronic skin(e-skin) that can detect touch 1,000 times faster than the human nervous system.
This discovery paves the way to the production of nimbler robots and could even provide a better sense of touch for prosthetic devices fitted to people. E-skin, called Asynchronous Coded Electric Skin (Aces), is inspired by our own human sensory nervous system.
It can detect signals and differentiate physical contact like human beings. The electronic nervous system of the skin is made of a network of sensors that are connected with a single conductor, unlike the nerve bundles in a human’s sensory nervous system.
Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee from the Department of Material Science and Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering said that the sense of touch is a vital part in enabling humans to navigate the physical world. He said that humans can lose their sense of balance without it.
“Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well,” said Professor Tee.
The artificial skin provides a simple wiring system that can improve the responsiveness of artificial intelligence (AI) applications in robots. This will increase the sensitivity of the machine to its surroundings and facilitate more effective functioning.
With this innovation, we can expect to see intelligent robots being employed to perform disaster recovery tasks and take over mundane operations such as packing items in warehouses.
This is a huge jump from the traditional synchronous sensory systems that could only detect physical contact individually with each scan. In contrast, Aces technology enables all sensors to work simultaneously, making detection much faster.
Aces can also accurately identify the shape, texture, and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds, which according to the NUS team is 10 times faster than a blink of an eye.
Professor Tee shared that while there may be risks in the technology being too responsive, the level of responsiveness can be adjusted according to the needs of the applications it is incorporated in. He added that this has already been added to the system.
This invention will allow future robots to better handle objects such as doors and cups by adjusting to the pressure, temperature, texture, and other factors that a human touch adjusts to.
Potential projects for innovation
Prof Tee believes that this innovation can help to lower manufacturing production costs as it can help machines complete more than one task, which is often the case for machines used in manufacturing industries.
He believes that machines using artificial skin could be introduced into the commercial market within the next two years. He said that despite the fast development of the robotics field, commercial products with this innovation, which are for human use, might take about 5 to ten years.
The research team also shared about how pairing Aces with the recently developed transparent, self-healing and water-resistant sensor skin layer by their team will create a self-repairing electronic skin. It will be akin to human skin. This potential innovation can be used to develop more realistic prosthetic limbs to help disabled individuals restore their sense of touch.