Creating sensitive robots with an artificial soft skin and flexible electronics

Creating sensitive robots with an artificial soft skin and flexible electronics
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An artificial soft skin with flexible electronics can be used to improve the sensitivity of robots to their surroundings.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) researchers have shown than programming flexible electronics and strain sensing into an artificial soft skin made of stretchy polymer will enhance robotics by creating more sensitive robots.

The paper is called “Toward programmable materials for wearable electronics: electrical welding turns sensors into conductors” and has been published in Advanced Electronic Materials.

Sensitive robots

The lead researcher Gilles Lubineau, has explained how a network of strain sensors and flexible electronics would give sensory feedback to help soft robots navigate their environment. He uses the analogy of when an animal stretches a limb, the network of nerves and sensors in the skin gives feedback to help the animal orient its limb and interact with its surroundings.

Using flexible electronics for sensing

Ragesh Chellattoan,  a Ph.D. student in the research team, explained that up until now, researchers have used different materials with are costly and complex for the sensing and conductive wiring components in their fabrication process.

Chellattoan said: “Our objective is to get both sensing and wiring connectivity in the one material.”

The research team has developed an artificial material which is a flexible polymer with silver nanowires embedded inside. Each nanowire is conductive but there is a high resistance at the junctions between the nanowires which limits the conductivity at the material. When the material is flexed and the nanowires are pulled apart, the resistance in creases and the nanowire network acts like a strain sensor.

Future research

The discovery could have applications in wearable electronic devices. According to Chellattoan, further research is needed to gain greater control over where nanowire welds form. This would enable researchers to draw precise conductive patterns into the artificial skin.

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