Under my skin

A NASA technologist is to develop a high-tech covering that would enable robots to sense their environment and react to it.

Vladimir Lumelsky, a technologist at NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, is to develop a high-tech covering that would enable robots to sense their environment and react to it, much like humans respond when something or someone touches their skin.

“Robots move well on their own, especially when nothing is in the way,” Lumelsky explained. However, change the environment and a different picture emerges. “Robots should be able to react, but today’s robots can’t,” he said. “That’s the difference and that’s got to change.”

Although great headway is being made in the area of computer vision, vision isn’t enough, he said. “Humans can survive without sight, but they can’t survive without tactile sensing. The skin is the biggest organ in our body. It’s nothing more than a huge sensor.”

The idea is to develop a “sensitive skin” that could use to cover a robot. This skin will include more than 1,000 infrared sensors that would detect an object, and send the information to the robot’s “brain.” The brain would digest the information, apply reasoning and react within milliseconds by directing the robot to move. Future skin prototypes likely will have a higher density of sensors on the skin, which will provide the robots with even greater dexterity.

The flexible plastic modules that will house the skin’s electronics will have to undergo a lot of testing to assure that they’re space qualified and able to withstand radiation and extreme changes in light and temperature, such as those that occur on other planets.

In addition, embedding the electronics on a large surface material, or printing the skin like wallpaper, presents another major hurdle. Work also is needed in the area of motion-planning development and intelligence.

The sensitive skin was identified as a key technology to develop at Goddard. It could prove vital in situations where humans and robots work side-by-side in the construction of large telescopes and in the operation of extraterrestrial equipment.