A “skin” developed at the University of British Columbia offers prosthetics and robots a gentle, tactile sensation.

A groundbreaking technology developed in British Columbia is emulating human skin, opening up new horizons for individuals with prosthetics and enhancing human-robot interactions.

This innovation involves an ultra-thin, flexible layer of silicone rubber brimming with sensory receptors, enabling it to perform intricate tasks. When applied to the fingertips of a prosthetic hand, this sensor-infused “skin” enables a prosthetic limb to delicately handle objects such as eggs, champagne flutes, and fruits.

The creators of this technology believe it has the potential to revolutionize the lives of prosthetic users and enhance the safety of human-robot interactions. According to Dr. John Madden, a senior study author and engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, the sensor employs weak electric fields to detect objects, even at a distance, similar to the way touchscreens operate. However, unlike touchscreens, this sensor is pliable and can register forces applied to its surface.

Comprised primarily of silicone rubber, this sensor skin shares similarities with the material used for special effects in the film industry. It can flex and crease, mimicking the appearance of real skin, and boasts a soft texture reminiscent of human skin. Moreover, its adaptability allows it to cover larger areas than just a hand.

Nevertheless, it is not yet a complete substitute for natural human skin. According to Madden, a single fingertip of human skin possesses a hundred times more sensory receptors than the sensor skin, enabling intricate activities such as striking a match or threading a needle. Additionally, human skin can sense heat and detect damage, capabilities that the sensor skin currently lacks.

Moving forward, Madden and a team of UBC researchers, in collaboration with Frontier Robotics and Honda’s research institute, plan to explore how effectively the sensor skin can maneuver around delicate objects, rather than simply grasping them securely. This development has the potential to further enhance the utility of this remarkable technology.

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