A new kind of artificial skin allows robot hands to feel the world

Around the world, there are a large number of labs working on artificial skin technology. The reason is simple - a breakthrough in this field could bring big benefits to many fields, from robotics to medicine.

The latest research group to publish their work is at the University of Houston. A team there, led by Cunjiang Yu, has developed a composite of rubber and semiconductors that can be stretched by up to 50 percent without damaging its electronic components. 

“Our strategy has advantages for simple fabrication, scalable manufacturing, high-density integration, large strain tolerance and low cost,” he said

Hot and cold

Normally, semiconductors are brittle and so using them in stretchable materials means creating complicated mechanical systems. This is the first work, the team claims, that embeds semiconductors in a stretchable material without any special mechanical structure.

In testing, the team showed that their skin could allow a robotic hand to sense the temperature of hot and iced water in a cup, and then perform the signals for hot and cold in American Sign Language.

“The robotic skin can translate the gesture to readable letters that a person like me can understand and read,” Yu said.

Beyond Robotic Hands

It's hoped that the system could be used beyond robotic hands too - perhaps in health monitors, medical implants and human-machine interfaces.

"We foresee that this strategy of enabling elastomeric semiconductors by percolating semiconductor nanofibrils into a rubber will advance the development of stretchable semiconductors," the team wrote in a paper published in the journal Science Advances.

"It will move forward the advancement of stretchable electronics for a wide range of applications, such as artificial skins, biomedical implants and surgical gloves."

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.