Fake Skin Gives Robots Sense of Touch

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After some tweaking, Someya and his colleagues built a system that enables the sensors to bend with a radius as small as two-hundredths of an inch (half a millimeter), flexible enough for any move a humanoid finger can make.

E-skin still doesn't compare to the real thing, though. You'd have to stack 30 pennies on the mesh before it could detect the pressure.

Additionally, the "robot skin" can sense only hot temperatures between 86° and 176°F (30° and 80°C).

Someya said that it will be fairly simple to improve these sensitivities; his team simply chose to develop flexibility before tweaking E-skin's sensitivity.

That flexibility comes at a price, however. Organic transistors aren't as tough as their metal counterparts. E-skin run roughshod through the Australian outback probably wouldn't last a week. In home use, however, the electronic epidermis would probably remain stable for years.

On the upside, the relatively low production cost of organic transistors, which can be "ink-jetted" onto a material backing, would make E-skin fairly cheap to replace—only a few hundred dollars (U.S.) a square foot.

Crime-Fighting Carpets?

E-skin researchers plan to apply their mesh sensor system to devices other than robots.

For example, Someya points to home security products. "If a pressure carpet is spread onto the floor in your house, the sensors could distinguish the family members and strangers just from footprints."

Other potential applications include running tracks that might monitor an athlete's stride and self-molding sofa cushions that could improve an armchair quarterback's comfort.

In general, E-skin-like sensors could make many objects a little smarter. The technology has already garnered interest from toymakers, automobile manufacturers, sports equipment companies, and security providers.

Scientists add that E-skin won't be limited to detecting temperature and pressure since the product's mesh structure makes it easy to include additional sensors. The team is working to integrate the ability to detect sound, humidity, and light.

"I have confidence that the Six Million Dollar Man should definitely want to buy our superhuman E-skins," Someya joked. Although the researcher admits that he won't be marketing the most basic types of E-skin for several years.

Someya and colleagues describe their research in the current issue of the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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