Engineering researchers are creating a new-generation of robots with a precise sense of touch that would enable them to carry out delicate roles in the care sector.
The work could result in robots being able to lift an elderly person or patient out of bed or carry a fragile china cup of tea from the kitchen to someone in another room.
A four-year £1 million project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council aims to support the creation of ultra-flexible tactile skin for robotics and prosthetics. To date, no robotics engineers have has been able to create ultra-flexible tactile skin. Either the sensor has been too big or the electronics not sufficiently flexible.
Now, however, Dr Ravinder Dahiya, a senior lecturer in electronic and nanoscale engineering from the University of Glasgow, is developing a way of incorporating electronics and sensors on bendable silicon-based surfaces that will be 50 micrometers thick – thinner than the aluminium foil we use every day.
Working with Professor Duncan Gregory, chair in inorganic materials in the school of chemistry, Dahiya is close to creating silicon based nanostructures such as nanowires which are printed on bendable substrates in a manner that will eventually lead to flexible electronic or tactile skin with distributed sensors and electronics. By developing a printing technique for high-mobility materials such as silicon, Dahiya believes he will obtain high-performance electronics at a low cost base.
“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,” said Dahiya
“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.”
His research is aligned with wider work on flexible electronics – the creation of bendable pieces of technology that will replace the flat screen computer or tablet.
In future, said Dr Dahiya, mobile phones will be more like a wristband, providing far 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,” he added.