Artificial skin improves sensory ability of robots

Wednesday, 06 November, 2019

Artificial skin improves sensory ability of robots

Sensitive synthetic skin enables robots to sense their own bodies and surroundings — a crucial capability if they are to be in close contact with people.

With this in mind, researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have combined artificial skin with control algorithms, creating what is claimed to be the first autonomous humanoid robot with full-body artificial skin. As documented in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE, the skin cells were originally developed around 10 years ago, but their potential was only recently fully realised upon their integration into a sophisticated system.

The artificial skin developed by Professor Gordon Cheng and his team consists of hexagonal cells about 2.5 cm in diameter. Each is equipped with a microprocessor and sensors to detect contact, acceleration, proximity and temperature. Such artificial skin enables robots to perceive their surroundings in much greater detail and with more sensitivity. This not only helps them to move safely, it also makes them safer when operating near people and gives them the ability to anticipate and actively avoid accidents.

The biggest obstacle in developing robot skin has always been computing capacity. Human skin has around 5 million receptors, and efforts to implement continuous processing of data from sensors in artificial skin soon run up against limits. Previous systems were quickly overloaded with data from just a few hundred sensors.

To overcome this problem, Prof Cheng and his team do not monitor the skin cells continuously, but rather with an event-based system that reduces the processing effort by up to 90%. The trick is that the individual cells transmit information from their sensors only when values are changed. This is similar to the way the human nervous system works. For example, we feel a hat when we first put it on, but we quickly get used to the sensation. There is no need to notice the hat again until the wind blows it off our head. This enables our nervous system to concentrate on new impressions that require a physical response.

With the event-based approach, Prof Cheng and his team have now succeeded in applying artificial skin to a human-size autonomous robot not dependent on any external computation. The H-1 robot is equipped with 1260 cells (with more than 13,000 sensors) on its upper body, arms, legs and even the soles of its feet. This gives it a new ‘bodily sensation’ — for example, with its sensitive feet, H-1 is able to respond to uneven floor surfaces and even balance on one leg.

With its special skin, the H-1 can even give a person a hug safely. That is less trivial than it sounds, as robots can exert forces that would seriously injure a human being. During a hug, two bodies are touching in many different places. The robot must use this complex information to calculate the right movements and exert the correct contact pressures.

“This might not be as important in industrial applications, but in areas such as nursing care, robots must be designed for very close contact with people,” Prof Cheng said.

The robot skin system is also highly robust and versatile. Because the skin consists of cells, and not a single piece of material, it remains functional even if some cells stop working.

“Our system is designed to work trouble-free and quickly with all kinds of robots,” Prof Cheng said. “Now we’re working to create smaller skin cells with the potential to be produced in larger numbers.”

Image caption: Thanks to the synthetic skin developed by Professor Gordon Cheng and his team, robot H-1 is able to feel the touch of a human. Image ©Astrid Eckert/TUM.

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