Scientists develop e-skin for ingenious sense of touch to robotics and prosthetics

A groundbreaking invention led by experts from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering focuses on developing a new electronic skin system for robots and prosthetic devices. The system will be capable of ultra-high responsiveness, in addition to immunity to damage. Moreover, it can be paired with any kind of skin layer and can in spite function as effectively as electronic skin.

The invention took inspiration from the human nervous system. According to reports, the team allegedly worked on the creation of the sensor system for a year and a half. Termed as the Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES), it is an artificial nervous system which is capable of detecting signals similar to the human nervous system.

The ACES is a network of sensors which is connected via a single electric conductor, unlike the nerve bundles in the human skin. This design is also unlike the existing electronic skins which interlink wiring systems, making them sensitive to damage and difficult to scale up.

“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake. Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking. 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,” explains Benjamin Tee, Assistant Professor.

According to the report the ACES can sense touches 1000 times faster than the human sensory system. Additionally, it can differentiate between physical contacts and different sensors within less than 60 nanoseconds. This kind of detection is regarded as the fastest in the electronic skin technology.

Moreover, the ACES can also precisely detect texture, shape and hardness of the object within 10 milliseconds, which is ten times faster than blinking of an eye.

ACES can detect touches more than 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system. For example, it is capable of differentiating physical contacts between different sensors in less than 60 nanoseconds – the fastest ever achieved for an electronic skin technology – even with large numbers of sensors. ACES-enabled skin can also accurately identify the shape, texture and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds, ten times faster than the blinking of an eye. This is enabled by the high fidelity and capture speed of the ACES system.

“Scalability is a critical consideration as big pieces of high performing electronic skins are required to cover the relatively large surface areas of robots and prosthetic devices,” commented Asst Prof Tee. “ACES can be easily paired with any kind of sensor skin layers, for example, those designed to sense temperatures and humidity, to create high performance ACES-enabled electronic skin with an exceptional sense of touch that can be used for a wide range of purposes,” he continued.

Owning to the uncomplicated wiring system of the ACES and the striking responsiveness, these form some of the key characteristics that enable the application of intelligent electronic skins for robots, prosthetics and other human machine interfaces.

Professor Tee’s team has in addition also developed a transparent, water-resistant and self-healing sensor skin layer that can self-repair, a function similar to human skin. This invention can thus help in developing realistic prosthetic limbs, which will help disabled individuals to restore sense of touch.

The cutting-edge advancement of this latest invention was published on July, 18 in Science Robotics.