Robotic e-skin senses touch 1000 times faster than human nervous system
National University of Singapore’s Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin also tolerant of physical damage.
“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake,” explained NUS assistant professor Benjamin Tee, who has been working on electronic skin technologies for over a decade. “Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking. Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well.”
Similar to the human nervous system, ACES is composed of thousands of spatially distributed sensors, each capable of asynchronous transmission. Unlike existing electronic skins, ACES doesn’t repeatedly poll each sensor to monitor if something has happed at any one location. Instead, ACES is event based, transmitting data only when a relevant input is determined to have happened.
This structure makes the ACES extremely quick, the researchers say. For example, it maintains a constant transmission latency of 1 ms and can differentiate physical contact between different sensors in less than 60 nanoseconds. The system is also capable of accurately identifying the shape, texture and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds.
The system’s design also makes it resistant to damage. While existing e-skin technologies have interlinked wiring systems, ACES’ sensors are independently connected to a single electrical conductor, which allow it to continue functioning as long as there is at least one connection between the sensor and the conductor.
“Scalability is a critical consideration as big pieces of high performing electronic skins are required to cover the relatively large surface areas of robots and prosthetic devices,” explained Tee. “ACES can be easily paired with any kind of sensor skin layers, for example, those designed to sense temperatures and humidity, to create high performance ACES-enabled electronic skin with an exceptional sense of touch that can be used for a wide range of purposes,” he added.
According to Tee, this type of electronic skin can be used to develop touch sensing prosthetic limbs as well as smarter robots that could better perform disaster recovery tasks or take over mundane operations such as packing of items in warehouses.