Robotic skin, a breakthrough that could benefit humans

Piel robótica

The skin is one of the most extensive and important organs in the human body. Along with being the "packaging" of all our entrails, its multiple receptors fulfill the important task of capturing a wide variety of stimuli, which are channeled into the brain.

In robotics, approaching a substitute for the skin is still a challenge and few small advances are known in this regard, mainly limited by technical feasibility issues. However, new models have appeared in recent years, which give a new turn to this concept, presenting it as a useful and viable alternative.

The challenge of emulating skin in robotic format

Stimuli such as textures, vibrations, thermal sensitivity, pressure, or more are captured by our body through its larger external organ. It is estimated that per square centimeter of skin, about 5 thousand receptors can be found. If we consider that on average, the extent of human skin varies between one and a half meters or two square meters, the receptor count rises exponentially.

In that complexity, typical of the entire human sensory system, lies the main obstacle facing which the world of science and robotics has long encountered. Emulating this dynamic would involve a technical deployment of large magnitudes, not only because of the number of sensors required but also because of the processing and energy supply capabilities that this requires. At the end of the day, there are millions of stimuli that need to be processed per second.

Making skin for robots is hard. But success could bring huge benefits for  humans, too | ZDNet

Significant approaches to complete robotic skin

Small advances, such as the implementation of sensitive "touch" systems and limited coverage areas in robots, are the notions that are usually known about these advances. However, there are new features that involve a real qualitative leap for this technology.

In Germany, for example, the Technical University of Munich designed an energy efficiency system for these sensors, activating them only in the face of certain particular conditions, rather than having them working simultaneously and permanently for all. Illustrating this with a case study, when experiencing cold, the sensation is generated by the detected thermal stimulus. When warmed up, that "alert signal" is lowered and is precisely in those situations where energy can be saved, suspending sensor activity until a significant change is detected again.

In Singapore, from the National University of that Asian country, they also designed a skin that works under a dynamic similar to the previous one, but with the addition of being flexible, self-regenerating, and waterproof.

Going further, in Australia, researchers at RMIT University designed electronic skin capable of feeling pain.

A highly performing and efficient e-skin for robotic applications

What is robotic skin for?

The concept of "robotic skin" can scare more than one person. Science fiction has put us in a series of possible scenarios, which could even prove disturbing. In practice, these advances are far from focusing on humanoids or things of such a category.

All this scientific innovation, as long as it stays within ethical margins, could have a powerful impact on human life. An example could be limb prostheses, which at the mobility level have seen significant improvements in recent years. The next challenge is to complement the experience with the sum of other stimuli.

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