Giving robots the sense of touch

2 min read

Glasgow University has received a £1.1m grant to fund the creation of ultra-flexible tactile skin for robotics and prosthetics.

The four-year funding under the EPSRC’s Fellowship for Growth programme has been won by Glasgow University’s Dr Ravinder Dahiya, a senior lecturer in electronic and nanoscale engineering. He is one of the academics from 10 UK universities to have been awarded a total of £13m to maintain the UK’s research leadership in advanced materials, robotic and autonomous systems, and synthetic biology.

According to the University, no robotics scientist has been able to create ultra-flexible tactile skin due to the sensor being too big or the electronics not sufficiently flexible.

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

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

The University believes that by developing a printing technique for high-mobility materials such as silicon, Dr Dahiya will obtain high-performance electronics at a low cost base. This research will also use the nanofabrication tools in the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre at Glasgow University.

‘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,’ Dr Dahiya said in a statement. ‘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.’

Dr Dahiya’s research is aligned with wider work on flexible electronics, such as the creation of bendable pieces of technology that will replace the flat screen computer or tablet. Looking further forward, Dr Dahiya said mobile phones will resemble wristbands, providing more information than currently, such as carrying out health monitoring.

He said: ‘Today’s robots are without skin which means they can’t feel the way we feel.  But they need to be able to interact the way we do.

‘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.’

Dr Dahiya envisages creating a “tactile” skin that would allow a robot to carry out various tasks ranging from lifting an elderly person or patient out of bed to gauging the right amount of pressure needed to carry a cup of tea from the kitchen to an elderly person in another room. He also foresees uses in the creation of more touch-sensitive prosthetics.