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ElectroSkin for soft robotics

Stretchable ElectroSkin can be used by soft robots providing them with sensing and locomotion capability. Image credit: University of Bristol

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.

A RoboBee hanging from a leaf thanks to an adhesive layer on its…legs. This capability was developed by researchers as a way to save energy a crtucial aspects for robot having insect size. Image credit: Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Harvard University

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.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.