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Electronic Skin Could Bring Touchy Robots

Paper-thin sensor networks might someday give machines the ability to feel their surroundings. Larry Greenemeier reports

Our skin tells us about our surroundings by detecting temperature, pressure and other external conditions. If a pot handle is too hot to touch, we can feel this heat before burning our hand.

Robots may someday have this protection too. A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a large-area sensor network integrated into a thin plastic film that acts like an electronic skin. They demonstrated the concept with an e-skin sample about the size of a postage stamp that lights up in the specific places it’s touched. The work is in the journal Nature Materials. [Chuan Wang et al., User-interactive electronic skin for instantaneous pressure visualization]

The harder the e-skin gets pressed, the brighter the light.

The researchers envision that flesh and blood users could have an e-skin smart bandage that monitors wounds. A large sheet of the material covering the wall of a room could even operate like a display screen. And a robot with such a surface could more effectively interact with its environment.

Of course, we don’t want our robots to be too sensitive. Then they might balk at cleaning up nuclear waste or spending years at a time all alone on Mars.

—Larry Greenemeier

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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