Robot ‘skin’ senses touch and force

Robotic devices that detect not only being touched but also where and how much force was applied are being developed by researchers in the US and the UK.

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab have commissioned touch-technology material developer Peratech to create a new type of electronic ’skin’ that will give robots these enhanced capabilities.

The technology will allow robotic devices to better understand their presence and interaction with humans and other objects within a space. This is expected to become critically important as robotic devices become more a part of daily life.

Yorkshire-based Peratech has said that the key to its sensing technology is quantum tunnelling composite (QTC) materials. These composites provide a measured response to force and/or touch by changing electrical resistance. The technique is similar to how a dimmer switch controls a light bulb. This enables a simple electronic circuit within the robot to determine touch.

It is claimed that, unlike other touch-technology materials, QTCs provide a ’proportional’ response. In other words, they detect how hard they have been touched. Peratech also claims that, with its patented XY scanning technology, the robot is able to detect where it has been touched on a matrix of sensors.

The MIT Media Lab hopes that the results of integrating the QTC skin with its robots could be applied to a range of other robotics projects.

Peratech’s QTC technology has previously been adopted by NASA for its Robonaut device and by Shadow Robot in the UK, which is touted as the world’s most advanced robotic hand. The project with MIT is claimed to be a first in enabling a human to interact through touch across the body of a robot – much as they would with another human.