Scientists from Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC) in collaboration with engineers from Honda have created an innovative soft sensory device that promises a revolution in the field of robotics, but also in the creation of prostheses.
Canada’s smart, stretchable and highly sensitive sensor represents a major step forward for the technology industry and has the potential to improve the dexterity and touch sensitivity of current amputees’ artificial limb replacements – or lend these capabilities to robots.
The sensory device, which resembles and also replaces skin on prostheses or robots, makes it possible to perform activities that were previously a real challenge for machines, such as gently grasping soft fruit.
A soft, human organ-like texture could also contribute to making the interaction of a person with his mechanical assistants safer and more “alive” or organic.
Dr. Mirza Saquib Sarwar is the author of the sensor and a scientific study about it, which was also published by the respected journal Nature. He created it as part of his PhD work in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC’s Faculty of Applied Sciences.
“Our sensor can sense several types of force action and enables prostheses or robotic limbs to respond precisely to touch stimulation. I’ll give an example – the machine arm can grasp even fragile objects like an egg or a glass of water without breaking or dropping them,” says the inventor.
What is artificial leather made of?
The Canadian sensor is mostly made of silicone rubber, a material commonly used to create special props in movies, where it often simulates human skin. The unique design of the device allows it to twist, squeeze or wrinkle, thus resembling the properties of a human organ.
The artificial skin is somewhat reminiscent of traditional touch screens that we know from modern mobile phones. In contrast, however, it uses weak electric fields to detect objects, even at a certain distance, and thus can calculate (feel) the force acting on its surface.
“Unlike touch screens, this sensor is flexible and can still register force applied on or along a surface. This unique combination is key to deploying the technology in robotics and machines that interact with humans,” added Dr. John Madden, who co-authored the device and the study.
A car company, which is already developing humanoids, lent its hand
The breakthrough technology was developed by UBC scientists with the help of Frontier Robotics, a research institute of Japanese automaker Honda, which has been known for its work in humanoid robotics since the 1980s. It has also already developed and is still improving its own android Asimo.
The possibility of producing sensors in large quantities is also an advantage. “As artificial intelligence develops and advances, the role of sensitive robotic skin will become increasingly essential to make smarter and smarter machines feel as truly human as possible,” added Madden.
“As sensors continue to evolve to act like real skin and can detect temperature and even damage, robots will need to be even smarter and know which sensors to pay attention to and how to respond. The development of sensors and artificial intelligence will have to go hand in hand,” added the co-author of the invention.