Honda, University of British Columbia Develop Smart, Stretchy Robot Skin

The silicone rubber skin can offer robotic limbs greater touch sensitivity, and help machines perform more complex, dexterous tasks

Scarlett Evans, Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

November 1, 2023

2 Min Read
UBC engineers created the sensor in collaboration with Frontier Robotics, Honda’s research institute
UBC Applied Science/Paul Joseph

Researchers from Honda's research institute, Frontier Robotics and the University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed a smart, stretchy robot skin which the partners say opens the door for a “range of applications” in robotics and prosthetics. 

Made of silicone rubber, the “skin” can be stretched on top of a prosthetic arm or robotic limb, and has built-in sensors providing touch sensitivity to the machines. 

This new sensitivity, according to the partners, enables more dexterous movements and gentle handling, allowing a machine to perform delicate tasks such as picking up a piece of soft fruit.

"Our sensor can sense several types of forces, allowing a prosthetic or robotic arm to respond to tactile stimuli with dexterity and precision,” said study author Mirza Saquib Sarwar. “For instance, the arm can hold fragile objects like an egg or a glass of water without crushing or dropping them."

The skin is also designed to be soft and lifelike, improving the humanoid properties of robots and making such machines more approachable for human users. Its soft and flexible nature also means it wrinkles and moves like human skin.

"Our sensor uses weak electric fields to sense objects, even at a distance, much as touch screens do,” said John Madden, senior study author. “But unlike touchscreens, this sensor is supple and can detect forces into and along its surface. 

Related:MIT Finger-Shaped Sensor Lets Robots Grasp, Manipulate Objects

“This unique combination is key to adoption of the technology for robots that are in contact with people." 

According to the team, the “skin” is easy to manufacture and therefore scalable to meet varying requirements. For now, the team is looking at increasing the sensing capabilities of its artificial skin to make it even more humanlike and exploring its potential use cases.

"Human skin has a hundred times more sensing points on a fingertip than our technology does, making it easier to light a match or sew,” said Madden. “As sensors continue to evolve to be more skinlike and can also detect temperature and even damage, there is a need for robots to be smarter about which sensors to pay attention to and how to respond. 

“Developments in sensors and artificial intelligence will need to go hand in hand."

About the Author(s)

Scarlett Evans

Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

Scarlett Evans is the assistant editor for IoT World Today, with a particular focus on robotics and smart city technologies. Scarlett has previous experience in minerals and resources with Mine Australia, Mine Technology and Power Technology. She joined Informa in April 2022.

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