Why Your Robot Needs New Skin

Making automatons feel better

  • Many companies are working on more lifelike robotic skins. 
  • BeBop Sensors has launched their new RoboSkin line of skin-like coverings for tactile awareness for humanoid robots and prosthetics. 
  • Researchers also recently learned to grow human-like skin using cells on a robotic finger.
Black and white cybernetic robot hands pointing at each other

Coneyl Jay / Getty Images

Your next robot may have skin that can feel. 

BeBop Sensors has launched their new RoboSkin line of skin-like coverings for tactile awareness for humanoid robots and prosthetics. The fabric-based sensor skin can be shaped to any surface allowing quick tailoring to fit any robot, with high spatial resolution and sensitivity. It's part of a growing movement to improve robotic skin to give automatons better awareness. 

"As robots integrate better with humans in the home (assisting the elderly, taking over mundane home tasks such as dishwashing), they'll need more distributed sensing to be safe and feel out their surroundings in cases where vision fails," Alex Gruebele, who recently completed his Ph.D. in biomimetics and dexterous manipulation at Stanford University, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Tactile sensors have mostly focused on robot fingertips. Manipulation starts with the fingertips, so that's where you need the richest sensory information."

Smarter Skin

The BeBop Sensors RoboSkin design is intended to show how soft, flexible sensing can be integrated into complex or organic forms. BeBop said its RoboSkin is "flexible, reliable, and highly proprietary."

The RoboSkin has a sense of touch due to taxels, which are pressure sensors that determine the relative amount of force applied when the sensor contacts an object. BeBop Sensors' Smart fabric treats the outside fibers with conductive nanoparticles, which change electrical properties when a force (from 5 grams to 50 Kg for the RoboSkin) interacts with the fibers. 

Flexed musclearm surrounded with golden mesh

Viaframe / Getty Images

The company says that RoboSkin could be used to make more human-like robots that could be used to help care for the elderly. "We are pleased we can make this important contribution to the worldwide effort to bring humanoid robots into our lives to help people live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable lives," Keith McMillen, the founder of BeBop Sensors said in a news release.

Living Skin for Robots

BeBop is among many companies working on more lifelike robotic skin. Researchers also recently learned to grow humanlike skin on a robotic finger using cells. A study published this month in the journal Matter shows that the method not only gave a robotic finger skin-like texture but also water-repellent and self-healing functions.

"The finger looks slightly ‘sweaty’ straight out of the culture medium," the paper’s first author, Shoji Takeuchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo, Japan, said in a news release. "Since the finger is driven by an electric motor, it is also interesting to hear the clicking sounds of the motor in harmony with a finger that looks just like a real one."

The team built the skin by putting the robotic finger in a solution of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts, the two main components that make up the skin's connective tissues. The mixture has a natural shrinking ability, so it's able to conform to the shape of the finger. The layer provided a uniform foundation for the next coat of cells—human epidermal keratinocytes—to stick to. These cells make up 90 percent of the outermost layer of skin, giving the robot a skin-like texture and moisture-retaining barrier properties.

According to the paper, the robotic skin had enough strength and elasticity to bear the dynamic movements as the robotic finger curled and stretched. The outermost layer was thick enough to be lifted with tweezers and repelled water, which provides various advantages in performing specific tasks, like handling electrostatically charged tiny polystyrene foam, a material often used in packaging. The crafted skin could even self-heal like humans' with the help of a collagen bandage. 

"We are surprised by how well the skin tissue conforms to the robot's surface," Takeuchi said. "But this work is just the first step toward creating robots covered with living skin."

Manipulation starts with the fingertips, so that's where you need the richest sensory information.

While humanoid skin may be a quickly moving field, scientists are still a long way off from creating robotic hands that mimic the capabilities of humans, experts say.

Michael Nizich, director of the Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation Center at New York Institute of Technology, noted in an email interview with Lifewire that the human hand has many separate bones that work together, along with various muscles connecting them at multiple attachment points. This configuration allows for a very specific series of articulation points and movements controlled by a combination of electrical impulses.

"When engineers try to imitate or emulate this highly evolved human configuration, we are limited by some of the existing commercial grade systemic controls available to us," Nizich said. "For example, we use controls like servos, motors, actuators, and solenoids to simulate digit extensions and may even use springs, rubber, or even plastic to perform the reflexivity response of the digits. These devices are rigid and usually only rotate or revolve around one hinge point."

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