Biotech wizards have engineered electronic skin that can sense touch, in a major step towards next-generation robotics and prosthetic limbs.
The lab-tested material responds to almost the same pressures as human skin and with the same speed, they reported in the British journal Nature Materials.
Important hurdles remain but the exploit is an advance towards replacing today’s clumsy robots and artificial arms with smarter, touch-sensitive upgrades, they believe.
“Humans generally know how to hold a fragile egg without breaking it,” said Ali Javey, an associate professor of computer sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, who led one of the research teams.
“If we ever wanted a robot that could unload the dishes, for instance, we’d want to make sure it doesn’t break the wine glasses in the process. But we’d also want the robot to grip the stock pot without dropping it.”
The “e-skin” made by Javey’s team comprises a matrix of nanowires made of germanium and silicon rolled onto a sticky polyimide film.
The team then laid nano-scale transistors on top, followed by a flexible, pressure-sensitive rubber. The prototype, measuring 49 square centimetres (7.6 square inches), can detect pressure ranging from 0 to 15 kilopascals, comparable to the force used for such daily activities as typing on a keyboard or holding an object.