New "Electronic Skin" Could Usher in the Era of Robot Surgeons and Chefs

Robots are well on their way toward mastering activities like crushing beer cans and doing the running man. But when it comes to tasks that require a little more finesse, like handling a raspberry without crushing it, robots have failed miserably — until now.

Researchers at Stanford University have imbued a robotic hand with human-like dexterity, by giving it a rubber glove made of electronic skin.

The “e-skin” imitates the way human skin is layered to give robot limbs the ability to sense pressure, so it knows how to control its force. Marc Negre, a master’s student who led the development of the pressure sensors, tells Inverse that this could help improve the ability of household robots, mechanical cooks, and surgeon bots in the future.

“The end goal is to be able to manipulate objects such as a glass in different directions without slipping, handling delicate objects in the context of the food industry, or for surgical robots which would need high dexterity while moving body parts or tools,” he tells Inverse via email.

The e-skin is almost identical to how human skin is layered.

Negre says his team modeled the e-skin after the nerve endings in our hands and a bumpy sublayer of skin known as the spinosum, in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

When humans pick something up, our outer layer of skin moves closer to the spinosum’s microscopic hills and valleys. The firmer we grasp something the closer our skin moves towards the valleys, which gives us a more potent touch feeling. Negre essentially recreated the same fleshy topography for the robotic glove.

“The development of the fifteen-step fabrication process was really challenging and exciting,” he explained. “We needed to build micrometer pyramids of different sizes, as well as 1 millimeter tiny hills, made out of rubber and conducting material.”

Within a few years, robots could be coated in this "e-skin."


But there’s still a lot of work to be done before an e-skin covered robotic surgeon is employed at a hospital. Currently, this mechanical hand would only be good at repetitive tasks, like lifting an egg and placing it in a carton.

The team needs to figure out how to further embed the sensors in a robotics system and have it understand what it’s touching. Negre said this is still a few years out, but this paper goes to show that researchers are getting a firmer grasp on replicating human body parts.

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