We Could Create Robots That Can Feel, Thanks to New Sensor-Laden “Robotic Skin”

Welcome to the world of robots that feel.

3. 24. 17 by Karla Lant
VolodymyrV/Getty

Modern consumers crave touchscreens, but the screens’ brittle fragility is their downfall. In order for sensors to cover anything larger — like a robot — the technology will need to be cost-effective and flexible. An MIT research team might have found the solution in 3-D printing, according to a study published recently in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.

The team, led by graduate student Subramanian Sundaram, set out to build a device that would physically respond to mechanical stresses. They were inspired by the golden tortoise beetle, which changes from its typical golden hue and flushes reddish orange when prodded or otherwise mechanically stressed. The team designed the sensors with “pixel” that change color when the sensor is pressed to prove that it is feasible to blend processing circuitry and sensors in printable, flexible electronics.

“In nature, networks of sensors and interconnects are called sensorimotor pathways,” Sundaram said in an MIT press release. “We were trying to see whether we could replicate sensorimotor pathways inside a 3-D-printed object. So we considered the simplest organism we could find.”

Credit: Subramanian Sundaram

Printable electronics aren’t exactly new, but existing printable electronics take a plastic substrate and deposit flexible circuitry on it. The team working on this artificial “goldbug” actually printed the substrate itself. Choosing and customizing the substrate means fewer limitations in terms of what can be deposited atop it, in turn increasing the variety of devices this process has the potential to create.

Advertisement

Printable, Sensor-Laden Robot Skin

3-D-printed substrates will also make printable, sensor-laden robot skin possible. Although printed substrates are initially flat sheets as they print out, they can then transform into more intricate, 3-D shapes as they fold themselves up.

For example, researchers at the CSAIL Distributed Robotics Laboratory are developing self-assembling, printable robots. These robots work like the shrinky dinks of the future, going into the oven flat, and coming out folded into shape. This strategy demonstrates the power of 3-D printing an entire component — or robot — rather than simply printing individual parts of it.

“We believe that only if you’re able to print the underlying substrate can you begin to think about printing a more complex shape,” Sundaram says.

Click to View Full Infographic

Ultimately, the goal would be to use an underlying substrate that was packed with sensors as well as working transistors so that the robot would be able to determine which inputs were important and which were just sensory “noise.” This substrate would be the ideal skin for a robot intended to react to its environment and interact intelligently with people and things around it.

Advertisement


Care about supporting clean energy adoption? Find out how much money (and planet!) you could save by switching to solar power at UnderstandSolar.com. By signing up through this link, Futurism.com may receive a small commission.

Share This Article

Keep up.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter to keep in touch with the subjects shaping our future.
I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its User Agreement and Privacy Policy

Advertisement

Copyright ©, Camden Media Inc All Rights Reserved. See our User Agreement, Privacy Policy and Data Use Policy. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with prior written permission of Futurism. Fonts by Typekit and Monotype.