Two breakthroughs in soft conductive materials and artificial skins could lead to human-like robots, but their applications extend beyond robotics.
In HBO’s hit series “Westworld” *SPOILER ALERT*, park visitors can abuse its humanoid robots, known as ‘hosts’, as they see fit without fear of ethical retaliation.
That’s before things get out of control as androids living in the Old West-themed amusement park start questioning their existence.
We are still a long way away from lifelike robots like those depicted in Westworld, but advances in robotics technology are getting us closer and closer to such a reality.
Engineers are working to bring robots to a higher stage of sophistication by endowing them with human-like abilities.
Self-healing and the sense of touch are two human abilities that, if replicated in robots, would go a long way into making them more sensitive, dexterous, autonomous, and, in a word, more “human”.
Self-Healing Soft Material
Self-healing is a natural recovery process of all organic life forms on Earth, including the human body that’s biologically designed and structured to repair itself.
Last month, mechanical engineers at Carnegie Mellon University reported the development of a new conductive soft material that can spontaneously self-repair after sustaining a mechanical damage.
The new material is a made of liquid metal droplets suspended in a composite elastic polymer (elastomer). In response to damage, nearby droplets connect to each other and make new electrical connections around the damaged area.
“Other research in soft electronics has resulted in materials that are elastic and deformable, but still vulnerable to mechanical damage that causes immediate electrical failure,” said Carmel Majidi, one of the authors. “The unprecedented level of functionality of our self-healing material can enable soft-matter electronics and machines to exhibit the extraordinary resilience of soft biological tissue and organisms.”
Soft conductive materials with self-healing ability could find their way not only into soft robotics, but also wearables, stretchable electronics, power and data transmission, and inflatable structures.
Toward Multi-Sensory Artificial Skin
Imagine a domestic robot that can simply touch your skin to detect a fever or even hold and coddle a baby as well as a human does.
Other than having to be smart enough for such tasks, robots have to have a human-like haptic sense that’s made possible thanks to a sensitive skin laden with multiple afferent nerves.
An international team of chemical engineers from Stanford University (U.S.) and Seoul University (South Korea) developed an artificial nervous system capable of activating a contraction reflex in a cockroach leg and identifying the Braille alphabet.
“[the team] combined a pressure sensor, a ring oscillator, and an ion gel–gated transistor to form an artificial mechanoreceptor. The combination allows for the sensing of multiple pressure inputs, which can be converted into a sensor signal and used to drive the motion of a cockroach leg in an oscillatory pattern, said researchers in a paper (Science magazine).
Researchers hope their artificial nerve circuit is a first step toward an artificial skin for robots and prosthetics to provide them with a set of sensations (texture, changes in temperature and pressure, etc.).
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