Flexible e-skin could spur rise of soft machines that can feel

Sections of the team's flexible e-skin fitted to a soft robot arm (credit: Yunjie Yang)
Sections of the team's flexible e-skin fitted to a soft robot arm (credit: Yunjie Yang)

A team of researchers based in the School of Engineering have developed electronic skin that could pave the way for soft, flexible robotic devices to assist with surgical procedures or aid people’s mobility.

The creation of stretchable e-skin by the researchers gives soft robots for the first time a level of physical self-awareness similar to that of people and animals. The technology could aid breakthroughs in soft robotics by enabling devices to detect precisely their movement in the most sensitive of surroundings, the team says.

Soft robots

Soft robots – which are made of pliable materials rather than metal or hard plastic – with e-skin could have a range of applications, including surgical tools, prosthetics and devices to explore hazardous environments. Unlike traditional rigid robots, which have a set range of movements, soft robots are highly flexible.

This poses a major challenge to developing the sensing systems that are essential for robots to carry out precise tasks and interact safely with people and the environment, researchers say. Without e-skin, it is hard for soft robots to understand their own motion and shape, and how these qualities interact with their environment.

Precision sensing

The University of Edinburgh team is the first to develop technology that overcomes this problem and provides soft robots with highly accurate, real-time sensing abilities. The researchers created a flexible e-skin made of a thin layer of silicone embedded with wires and sensitive detectors.

Using the e-skin – which is 1mm thick – in combination with artificial intelligence, researchers were able to give soft robots the ability to rapidly sense their motions and deformations with millimetre accuracy in three dimensions, in real time.

The team tested their e-skin by fitting it to a soft robot arm. They found that the technology was able to sense a range of complex bending, stretching and twisting movements across every part of the device.

Data-driven collaboration

The study, published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, was led by Dr Yunjie Yang and Dr Francesco Giorgio-Serchi, who are both Data Driven Innovation Chancellor’s Fellows in the School.

The paper’s lead author is Delin Hu, a PhD student based in the School’s Institute for Digital Communications (IDCOM). The research was also a collaboration with Dr Shiming Zhang, a material science expert at the University of Hong Kong.

The researchers received support from the Data Driven Innovation programme, part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. They have worked closely with the University’s commercialisation service, Edinburgh Innovations, and plan to commercialise the technology.

“Step change”

Dr Yang said: “The perceptive senses endowed to robotic devices by this new technology are similar to those of people and animals. This new level of physical self-awareness represents a step change in the sensing capabilities of soft robots.”

Dr Giorgio-Serchi said: “The flexibility of the technology we have developed means it could be applied to various soft robots to enable them to accurately perceive their own shape and movements. Ultimately, that means we are now closer to making some of the most exciting ideas in soft robotics a reality.”

The e-skin is the latest development in computer science and AI since the University established its first research hubs in the disciplines 60 years ago. A year-long programme of events will mark achievements over the past six decades and look to the future of computer science and AI at Edinburgh.

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