Scientists develop sensitive skin for robots

June 30th, 2011 - 4:40 pm ICT by IANS  

London, June 30 (IANS) Human skin is a biological wonder, registering a multitude of sensations from the finest breath to touch or pain. Now scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany, are developing a synthetic skin for robots with a similar quality.

The synthetic skin will provide important tactile information to the robot and thus supplement its perception formed by camera eyes, infrared scanners and gripping hands.

As with human skin, the way artificial skin is touched could, for example, lead to a spontaneous retreat (when the robot hits an object) or cause the machine to use its eyes for the first time to search for the source of contact, according to a TUM statement.

Such behaviour is especially important for robotic helpers of people travelling in constantly changing environments. According to robot vision, this is just a regular apartment in which things often change position and people and pets move around.

“In contrast to the tactile information provided by the skin, the sense of sight is limited because objects can be hidden,” explains Philip Mittendorfer, the scientist who is developing the artificial skin at the Institute of Cognitive Systems at TUM.

The centrepiece of the new robotic shell is a five square cm hexagonal plate or circuit board. Each small circuit board contains four infrared sensors that detect anything closer than one cm. “We thus simulate light touch,” explains Mittendorfer.

“This corresponds to our sense of the fine hairs on our skin being gently stroked,” he said.

There are also six temperature sensors and an accelerometer.

“This allows the machine to accurately register the movement of individual limbs, for example, of its arms, and thus to learn what body parts it has just moved. We try to pack many different sensory modalities into the smallest of spaces,” explains the engineer.

“In addition, it is easy to expand the circuit boards to later include other sensors, for example, pressure,” Mittendorfer said.

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