Nanowire E-Skin to Help Robots Feel

An artist’s illustration of an artificial e-skin with nanowire active matrix circuitry covering a hand. The fragile egg illustrates the functionality of the e-skin device for prosthetic and robotic applications.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a nanowire material that may provide a sense of touch for robots. Unlike current attempts to create e-skin, it uses inorganic materials.

Described in a press release on the UCB website (which I got to through yesterday’s article in PC World), the material is detailed in this week’s electronic version of the science-engineering journal Nature Materials, a spinoff of Nature.

The material is a made of germanium-silicon semiconductor nanowires, or as UCB likes to put it: “It is the first such material made out of inorganic single crystalline semiconductors.”

It’s a departure from previous attempts to develop E-skin, which used organic materials. But organic materials are poor conductors, which means high voltages are required to transmit sensory information, which this material does not; it’s also stronger than organic skin. Stronger. Faster. Better.

As the eggheads put it:

A touch-sensitive artificial skin would help overcome a key challenge in robotics: adapting the amount of force needed to hold and manipulate a wide range of objects.

“Humans generally know how to hold a fragile egg without breaking it,” said [team leader Associate Professor Ali Javey]… “If we ever wanted a robot that could unload the dishes, for instance, we’d want to make sure it doesn’t break the wine glasses in the process. But we’d also want the robot to be able to grip a stock pot without dropping it.”

A longer term goal would be to use the e-skin to restore the sense of touch to patients with prosthetic limbs, which would require significant advances in the integration of electronic sensors with the human nervous system.

…The UC Berkeley engineers utilized an innovative fabrication technique that works somewhat like a lint roller in reverse. Instead of picking up fibers, nanowire “hairs” are deposited.


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  1. Pingback: Nanowire e-Skin to Help Robots “Feel” « Skid Roche

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