Researchers have developed a system combining artificial skin with control algorithms and used it to create the first autonomous humanoid robot with full-body artificial skin.
The artificial skin developed by Professor Gordon Cheng and his team from Technical University of Munich in Germany, consists of hexagonal cells about the size of a two-euro coin (i.e. about one inch in diameter).
According to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE, each is equipped with a microprocessor and sensors to detect contact, acceleration, proximity and temperature.
Such artificial skin enables robots to perceive their surroundings in much greater detail and with more sensitivity.
This not only helps them to move safely. It also makes them safer when operating near people and gives them the ability to anticipate and actively avoid accidents.
According to the study, the biggest obstacle in developing robot skin has always been computing capacity.
Human skin has around five million receptors. Efforts to implement continuous processing of data from sensors in artificial skin soon run up against limits.
Previous systems were quickly overloaded with data from just a few hundred sensors.
To overcome this problem using a neuroengineering approach, researchers do not monitor the skin cells continuously, but rather with an event-based system.
This reduces the processing effort by up to 90 per cent.
With the event-based approach, research has now succeeded in applying artificial skin to a human-size autonomous robot not dependent on any external computation.
The H-1 robot is equipped with 1,260 cells (with more than 13,000 sensors) on its upper body, arms, legs and even the soles of its feet. This gives it a new “bodily sensation”.
For example, with its sensitive feet, H-1 is able to respond to uneven floor surfaces and even balance on one leg.
With its special skin, the H-1 can even give a person a hug safely. That is less trivial than it sounds – robots can exert forces that would seriously injure a human being. During a hug, two bodies are touching in many different places.
“This might not be as important in industrial applications, but in areas such as nursing care, robots must be designed for very close contact with people,” Cheng explained.
“Our system is designed to work trouble-free and quickly with all kinds of robots,” he said.
“Now we’re working to create smaller skin cells with the potential to be produced in larger numbers,” he added.