Scientists develop ‘electronic skin’ — Analysis

The patch provides enhanced tactile feedback and allows the operator to remotely control a robot and feel its feelings

China’s researchers have created a flexible wireless skin patch that allows for the transmission of tactile stimuli from a robot to a human operator. A team of researchers from China’s University of Electronic Science and Technology (UEST), Dalian University of Technology and Tsinghua University created the wireless flexible skin patch. The sensor is sensitive enough for movement and stress factors to be captured, including twisting and turning.

While there is already technology that allows humans to operate robots remotely, what makes this ‘electronic skin’ patch stand out is the fact that it is far less bulky, easier to handle and, last but not least, apparently provides more feedback than its predecessors.

Researchers from China explain what makes this possible, in an article that was published in Science Advances journal. 

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Patches are placed on the operator’s joints, with sensors reacting when a patch is bent, and sending the corresponding signal to the robot directly via Bluetooth, or alternatively, through a local network or the internet. The sensors are made of piezoresistive materials, the electrical resistance of which changes when subjected to mechanical stress, thus allowing the capture of the operator’s movements.

Two-way feedback is possible because similar sensors can be attached to different parts of the robot. The signals are transmitted to the electronic skin where tiny magnets activated by the signal. These vibrate at different frequencies depending on the applied pressure. Researchers claim that it is so sensitive that an operator can distinguish between soft and hard rubber pieces held by robots.

According to the article, Bluetooth delivers the feedback signals in a remarkable four milliseconds. This figure increases when the signal is transmitted over a WiFi network. The delay in transmitting the data, however, is still below the average time it takes for a human to respond to tactile stimuli.

The device’s battery allows for more than an hour of non-stop work, while in standby mode it can last for up to two weeks.

The system is still in prototype form, but it could prove useful down the line. Robotic assistance might be needed for bomb disposal or radioactive waste cleanup, among other areas.

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