A team of scientists has managed to develop an electronic artificial skin that mimics that of humans. The new electronic skin can detect a range of tactile stimuli, such as temperature, pressure or object slippage in milliseconds without compromising accuracy or precision.

It can also be used when partially damaged!

The research team, from the National University of Singapore, reported their findings in Science Robotics this month. 

This is just the latest development in the field

As impressive as their work is, other breakthroughs have been done before. In fact, other researchers at the National University of Singapore recently reported their development of self-healing, stretchy electronic skin inspired by jellyfish. 

Other previously reported touch-sensitive electronic skins largely transmit data from sensors in a series or sequence. This tends to result in slow responsiveness and requires complex wiring networks.

This method also makes it a challenge to make artificial skins more responsive and can stay operational after physical damage.

Wang Wei Lee and his team have managed to create something they call “Asynchronously Coded Electronic Skin” (ACES). This innovative technology enables simultaneous and quick transmission of sensory perception information from over 10,000 sensors with high precision and resolution.

While similar solutions do exist, ACES has been designed with embedded sensors connected only by a single, continuous wire. When some sensors are damaged or disconnected within the network, remaining sensors can maintain function.

It’d another example of technology mimicking nature

The team specifically drew inspiration from nature for their new artificial skin. By attempting to mimic human call-and-response pathways in our nervous systems they have found an interesting solution for future electronic skin.

Each embedded sensor is able to transmit sensory information asynchronously in a pattern of pulses. This all happens within one millisecond which is comparable to biological action potentials

Within one millisecond (similar in duration to a biological action potential), each sensor could transmit sensory information asynchronously in a pattern of pulses – called a “pulse signature” – unique to each sensor.

The authors say that while the increase in computational complexity required for the decoder is one potential disadvantage their system, their overall design allows the sensors to operate in a low-cost and efficient way. 

What applications are proposed for this new artificial skin?

The new electronic skin, with some further development, could have many exciting uses. These could include things like androids, future prosthetics or have applications in computer hardware.

This could pave the way for more natural interaction between humans and technology as well as unknown environments. As the skin can also operate after it has been partially damaged, it should improve its utility in the future.

It could also have wide-ranging applications in entertainment too. With massive refinement, it could have wide-ranging application in entertainment from computer games to actually ‘feeling’ like you are really there in a film. 

Who knows, Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic arm in The Empire Strikes Back may become a reality very soon. Though knowing human nature it will probably quickly be adopted for more taboo applications – we’ll let you fill in the blanks.

Whatever the case, this is an exciting development and one to keep an eye on. 

The original study was published in the journal Science Robotics

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