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Robots Could Gain Sense of Touch, With New Artificial SkinRobots Could Gain Sense of Touch, With New Artificial Skin

New design can help businesses determine the presence of hazardous materials, offer greater safety for workers

Scarlett Evans

June 7, 2022

2 Min Read
Caltech campus

A new artificial skin developed by a team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology has been designed to give robots a crucial function they currently lack; touch. 

The latest design could give robots the ability to determine temperature, pressure, texture and even toxic chemicals. The robotic-sensing platform, dubbed M-Bot, integrates the artificial skin into a robotic arm and sensors that are then attached to a person, who receives feedback from the sensors to assess items held and respond accordingly. 

Using a hydrogel material, the newly developed skin was designed to make robotic fingertips more similar in texture to our own and has embedded sensors that are created by printing nanomaterials into the hydrogel. Such a process allows sensors for different capabilities to be easily and rapidly integrated into the material, depending on the requirements.

“When we want to detect one given compound, we make sure the sensor has a high electrochemical response to that compound,” said Wei Gao, Caltech’s assistant professor of medical engineering. “Graphene impregnated with platinum detects the explosive TNT very quickly and selectively. For a virus, we are printing carbon nanotubes, which have very high surface area, and attaching antibodies for the virus to them. This is all mass producible and scalable.”

According to the team, the system has potential applications in a variety of industries, including agriculture, security and environmental protection; allowing operators to “feel” potentially hazardous materials on plants and in items. The system remains in its prototype phase for now, with further optimization needed before it reaches commercialization. 

“I think we have shown a proof of concept,” said Gao. “But we want to improve the stability of this robotic skin to make it last longer … we want to put it on more powerful robots and make them smarter, more intelligent.”

Research funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Naval Research, NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health, the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program and the Carver Mead New Adventures Fund at Caltech.

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