Robots and prosthetic devices may soon have a sense of touch equivalent to, or better than, the human skin with the Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES), an artificial nervous system developed by a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Sciencedaily.com reports that the new material has high responsiveness and robustness to damage, and can be paired with a variety of sensor skin layers to function effectively as an electronic skin.
“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or a handshake. Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking. Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well,” said Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee. He has been working on electronic skin technologies for over a decade.
While the ACES electronic nervous system detects signals like the human sensor nervous system, it is made up of a network of sensors connected via a single electrical conductor, unlike the nerve bundles in the human skin. It is also unlike existing electronic skins, which have interlinked wiring systems that can make them sensitive to damage and difficult to scale up.
“The human sensory nervous system is extremely efficient. … It is also very robust to damage. Our sense of touch, for example, does not get affected when we suffer a cut. If we can mimic how our biological system works and make it even better, we can bring about tremendous advancements in the field of robotics where electronic skins are predominantly applied,” Tee said.
The researchers report that ACES can detect touches more than 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system, differentiating physical contacts between different sensors in less than 60 nanoseconds. ACES-enabled skin can also accurately identify the shape, texture and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds, ten times faster than the blinking of an eye.
The ACES platform can also be designed to achieve high robustness to physical damage, an important property for electronic skins because they come into the frequent physical contact with the environment.
Wang Wei Lee, Yu Jun Tan, Haicheng Yao, Si Li, Hian Hian See, Matthew Hon, Kian Ann Ng, Betty Xiong, John S. Ho, Benjamin C. K. Tee. A neuro-inspired artificial peripheral nervous system for scalable electronic skins. Science Robotics, 2019; 4 (32): eaax2198 DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aax2198