Zhenan Bao (Stanford), Ali Javey, Matei Ciocarlie (California)/
Stanford University & University of California, Berkeley, Willow Garage, California
Flexible sensors could give prosthetics and robots a more sensitive sense of touch.
The tactile sensitivity of human skin is hard to re-create, especially over large, flexible surfaces. But two California research groups have made pressure-sensing devices that significantly advance the state of the art.
One, made by researchers at Stanford University, is based on organic electronics and is 1,000 times more sensitive than human skin. The second, made by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, uses integrated arrays of nanowire transistors and requires very little power. Both devices are flexible and can be printed over large areas.
Highly sensitive surfaces could help robots pick up delicate objects without breaking them, give prosthetics a sense of touch, and give surgeons finer control over tools used for minimally invasive surgery. “Our goal is to mimic the human skin,” says Zhenan Bao, professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. Human skin responds quickly to pressure and can detect objects as small as a grain of sand and light as an insect.
Artificial skin could offer major advantages for robotic manipulation, says Matei Ciocarlie, research scientist at Willow Garage, a personal-robotics company based in Menlo Park, California. When a robot is manipulating an object, that object may often be hidden from cameras and other sensors, so tactile sensing can provide useful feedback. Touch sensing can also help robots avoid obstacles and locate objects in difficult environments.