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E-skin: The breakthrough that lets robots 'feel'
A new artificial skin could have profound effects on the way robots sense objects — and maybe even help them wash wineglasses without smashing them
 
Engineers are working on an artificial "e-skin" that can help robots negotiate the world in a more delicate and careful way.
Engineers are working on an artificial "e-skin" that can help robots negotiate the world in a more delicate and careful way.
Corbis

Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley have invented an artificial skin that may change the way robots touch and sense objects. "E-skin," as its inventors call it, could lead to advances in prosthetic limbs — and even raise the odds that robots might excel at housework. (Watch a demonstration.) Here's an instant guide to this breakthrough technology:

What is e-skin?
A thin, flexible coating designed to let robots or prosthetic limbs become more sensitive to the weight of objects, "feeling" objects the way humans do and simulating the way humans negotiate the physical world.

What is it made of?
Scientists built the skin out of "inorganic single crystalline semiconductors;" or, to get slightly more technical — the researchers "started by growing the germanium/silicon nanowires on a cylindrical drum, which was then rolled onto a sticky substrate… As the drum rolled, the nanowires were deposited, or 'printed," onto the substrate in an orderly fashion, forming the basis from which thin, flexible sheets of electronic materials could be built."

How does it differ from earlier versions?
Until now, most scientists attempting to create artificial skin used organic material because of its flexibility. This inorganic version is just as flexible but far more energy-efficient (organics are poor conductors) and — most significantly — lets robots detect weight and pressure more accurately than ever before. An e-skin-equipped robot, for instance, could hold an egg without clumsily crushing it.

Why is this so exciting?
Eventually, scientists hope that e-skin can help patients with prosthetic limbs learn to regain the sense of touch. Such an advancement, however, "would require significant advances in the integration of electronic sensors with the human nervous system," says ScienceBlog.

How could this advancement help the rest of us?
The ability to feel pressure and weight could certainly equip robots to perform chores like washing dishes more elegantly. In the future, "when your cyber-being goes to clean the wine glasses from last night's party, it won't break them," says James Mulroy at PC World. And Tim Hornyak at CNet points out a clear advantage from the robot's point of view: "It wouldn't get dishpan hands."

Sources: Discover, ScienceBlog, PC World, Science 2.0, Fast Company, CNet

 

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