Robots Could Get Touchy-Feely With This Transparent Smart Skin

This ultra-thin smart skin uses nine times fewer electrodes than other prototypes, and is self-powering too.

AsianScientist (Apr. 20, 2016) – Smart synthetic skins have the potential to allow robots to touch and sense what’s around them, but keeping them powered up and highly sensitive while controlling costs is a challenge. Now, scientists in China report in ACS Nano a self-powered, transparent smart skin that is simpler and less costly than many other versions that have been developed.

Endowing robots and prosthetics with a human-like sense of touch could dramatically advance these technologies. Toward this goal, scientists have come up with various smart skins to layer onto devices. But boosting their sensitivity involves increasing the numbers of electrodes, depending on the size of the skin—leading to a rise in costs.

Another challenge is that other systems require external batteries and wires to operate, which adds to their bulk. Thus, Professor Zhang Haixia from the Institute of Microelectronics at Peking University and colleagues wanted to find a more practical solution.

The researchers created a smart skin out of ultra-thin plastic films and just four electrodes made from silver nanowires. Other prototypes contain up to 36 electrodes.

Although possessing only a ninth of the amount of electrodes than other similar devices, tests showed that the skin was highly sensitive. It could “feel” the slight disturbances of a honeybee as it flew toward and away from the device. It also demonstrated electrical stability, maintaining the same level of output over 30,000 cycles.

A transparent smart skin that can detect a bee landing on it. Credit: American Chemical Society
A transparent smart skin that can detect a bee landing on it. Credit: American Chemical Society

Additionally, one component harvests mechanical energy—for example, from the movement of a prosthetic hand’s fingers—and turns it into an electric current. Therefore, the skin wouldn’t need an external power source.

“Benefiting from the triboelectric mechanism, extra power supply is unnecessary for this smart skin. Therefore, it solves the problems of batteries and connecting wires for smart skins,” the researchers wrote.

“With microstructured poly(dimethylsiloxane) films and silver nanowire electrodes, it can be covered on the skin with transparency, flexibility, and high sensitivity.”

The article can be found at: Shi et al. (2016) Self-Powered Analogue Smart Skin.


Source: American Chemical Society; Photo: Shutterstock.
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