In the last ten years there have been several researches focussing on the creation of a sensory system for robots that could be as effective as the one of animals. Animals have a variety of sensorial capabilities, varying in different species. Most species (probably all) have touch sensors embedded in their skin. That allows them to feel the things they touch and take decision on what to do. Some of these sensors are there to light a red light if needed for a prompt retreat (like temperature sensors) other can instruct the motor muscles on the right pressure to exert on an object (we don’t even realise that sicne it comes natural to us but we manage marble balls quaite differently from a raspberry; you fail to do that and you end up with a marble falling on the floor and a squashed raspberry in your fingers).
Creating a robotic skin that is elastic and can embed sensors has been the focus of many researchers, particularly those interested in soft robotics. It is not just about research, there are companies like, guess what, Soft Robotics that are offering products.
Now I have read this article by researchers at Bristol University where they present ElectroSkin (watch the video clip), an artificial skin that in some ways is even better than human skin (but not actually overall better, it cannot self-repair and grow like our skin does and that is clearly a “minus”). They have managed to create a “skin” containing dielectric elastomer actuators -DEA- (that makes the skin able to stretch and to change shape, contract, as needed) in a soft electroadhesives surface – EA. These two component would let a robot “wearing” it to change its shape as it is feeling the surrounding environment. Such a robot could in principle even be able to walk on walls and on ceilings using the EA characteristics. It won’t be the first though. A robobee developed at Harvard is using glue on its surface to rest on leaves…
The goal of the Bristol researchers is to create a material (the ElectroSkin) that can be used for the design and production of soft robots. The ElectroSkin can play the role of supporting scaffold and external cover, with no need for additional hard material. The shape of the soft robot can be controlled through the actuators (soft) embedded in the material itself. You can roll up a sheet of ElectroSkin and then lay it on a surface. The actuators will operate to give it a shape and to let it move on the surface. This is not very different from a snail whose tissues can sense and change shape.