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Tactile skin development for robots

06 May 2014

A £1.07 million funding grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has been awarded to support the creation of ultra-flexible tactile skin for robotics and prosthetics. To date this has not been achieved – either the sensor has been too big or the electronics not sufficiently flexible.

The four-year funding under the EPSRC’s Fellowship for Growth programme has been won by Dr Ravinder Dahiya, at the University of Glasgow. He is one of the leading academics from ten UK universities to have been awarded a total of £13 million to maintain the UK’s research leadership in three areas – advanced materials, robotic and autonomous systems, and synthetic biology.

Dr Dahiya believes he has found a way of incorporating electronics and sensors on bendable silicon-based surfaces that will just be 50 micrometers  thick. 

He will be working in collaboration with Professor Duncan Gregory, Chair in Inorganic Materials in the School of Chemistry, on the creation of silicon based nanostructures such as nanowires which are printed on bendable substrates in a manner that will eventually lead to flexible electronic or tactile skin with distributed sensors and electronics. 

By developing a printing technique for high-mobility materials such as silicon, he will obtain high-performance electronics at a low cost base. This research will also use the state-of-the- art nanofabrication tools in the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre at the University of Glasgow. 

“Interfacing the multidisciplinary fields of robotics and nanotechnology, this research on ultra-flexible tactile skin will open up whole new areas within both robotics and nanotechnology. So far, robotics research has focused on using dexterous hands, but if the whole body of a robot is covered with skin, it will be able to carry out tasks like lifting an elderly person. In the nanotechnology field, it will be a new paradigm whereby nanoscale structures are used not for nanoscale electronics, but for macroscale bendable electronics system. This research will also provide a much-needed electronics engineering perspective to the field of flexible electronics,” said Dr Dahiya.

His research is aligned with wider work on flexible electronics – the creation of bendable pieces of technology that will replace the flat screen computer or tablet. Dr Dahiya believes that, in future mobile phones will be more like a wristband, providing far more information than currently, such as carrying out health monitoring.

“Today’s robots are without skin which means they cannot feel the way we feel.  But they need to be able to interact the way we do,” he said. “As our demographic changes over the next 15-20 years, robots will be needed to help the elderly. In such a scenario, robots should have skin so that they can feel like we do – whether the surface is hard or soft, or rough or smooth.  They should be able to feel weight,” he added.


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