Sensational Tech

Robots get human-like touch with a new "skin" that senses pressure, temperature, and force, paving the way for smarter and safer machines.

Nick Bild
7 months ago β€’ Sensors
Human-inspired, real-time tactile perception system (πŸ“·: B. Lee et al.)

The human skin is a remarkable sensory organ, capable of recognizing and processing a vast array of tactile information with incredible sensitivity and versatility. This intricate system involves a complex interplay of specialized nerve endings, receptors, and the central nervous system, allowing for the rapid and nuanced interpretation of various stimuli. The skin is equipped with an extensive network of mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, and nociceptors, each finely tuned to detect specific types of stimuli, including pressure, temperature, and pain.

When the skin comes into contact with an object or experiences a change in environmental conditions, these receptors generate electrical signals that are almost immediately transmitted to the brain through the peripheral nervous system. This rapid relay of information enables the brain to process and interpret the tactile input almost instantaneously, forming the basis for our sense of touch. The sensitivity and versatility of this system allow humans to perceive not only the basic characteristics of an object, such as its texture and temperature but also more complex sensations like vibrations, stretching, and deformation.

Much of the challenge of replicating this sophisticated tactile sensing system artificially lies in the multifaceted nature of human touch. Touch involves a wide range of stimuli that must be captured and interpreted simultaneously, in real-time, for effective interaction with the environment. This complexity poses significant obstacles in fields such as robotics and virtual reality, where the development of human-like sensing systems is crucial for creating more intuitive and adaptive machines.

Toward a better artificial sensing system, researchers at the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials have developed a real-time, multimodal tactile perception system that was inspired by humans. It consists of a vertical stack of four different types of sensors that detect normal force, shear force, dynamic force, and temperature. This stack configuration enables all of these stimuli to be recognized at the same time.

Of course capturing raw sensor readings is only part of the equation. Those measurements still must be transmitted to where they need to go, and some processing must take place so that they can be interpreted and put to some useful purpose. For this reason, the team combined their sensors with a signal processing and transmission module, and also a tactile analysis module. The signal processing unit has specialized inputs and outputs for each sensor to perform any necessary preprocessing. Those outputs then flow into the analysis module where more complex signal analyses can be carried out.

To ensure that the system would be as practical as possible for real-world applications, the team built their device on top of a flexible printed circuit board. They also leveraged a custom 3D printer to produce stretchable, three-dimensional interconnections between the components. The result is a flexible and relatively thin device that can be applied to surfaces much like an artificial skin.

Many previous efforts to develop an artificial sensing system of this sort rely on large external components for operation. For many use cases, this extra bulk is unacceptable. In the work done by the team at the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials, however, there is no such reliance on bulky external equipment. That could make this technology a viable option where no present technologies can quite fit the bill.

Looking toward the future, the researchers plan to investigate ways that they might give their device the ability to perceive the spatial distributions of tactile stimuli. They also intend to explore options for wirelessly transmitting data from their system to external devices.

Nick Bild
R&D, creativity, and building the next big thing you never knew you wanted are my specialties.
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