This New Robot Graphene Skin Is More Sensitive Than A Human Hand

It’s a softer, gentler kind of skin.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow have developed an electronic, self-powered robotic mitt that’s more sensitive to touch than a human hand.

Professor Ravinder Dahiya, an electrical engineer at the University of Glasgow, says his first-of-its-kind sensor is a step towards more lightweight prosthetic limbs for people, as well as more natural-feeling robots covered in soft-skinned bodies. His new bot skin, which is made of a single atomic layer of graphene, is basically a touch sensor. It needs 20 nanowatts of power per square centimeter to operate. For that, Dahiya turned to the sun:

“Whatever light is available, 98 percent is going and hitting the solar cell,” he says, explaining that a solar panel is located just under the surface of the clear graphene skin. “it is generating power that can be used to get the sensitivity, the tactile feeling.”

“It is one order of magnitude better than human skin,” Dahiya says.

His group’s research, published in Advanced Functional Materials on Thursday, is a first step towards softer robotics and more responsive sensors for touch screens. But Dahiya says that’s not all.

The transparent spin-coated graphene layer could also be sewn into clothing, he says, turning a snug pair of yoga pants into a snazzy (yet highly accurate) sweat sensor. Or, the self-powered sensors could be developed for use in health care devices, so that in the future, patients and doctors living in places without electricity could use the sun’s rays to power gadgets like blood glucose monitors.

The silicon and graphene that the new skin is made of is environmentally friendly and relatively cheap, too. Dahiya is currently developing a low-cost 3-D printed prosthetic hand equipped with the skin, which rings up around $350 (labor not included) – a price point that is tens of thousands of dollars cheaper than the more state-of-the-art, battery-powered prosthetic hands on the market.

The hope is that with more self-powered prosthetics ‘on hand,’ amputees could hike up into the mountains or head out to sea– without having to lug along any extra external batteries for their limbs. And robots coated entirely in the touch-sensitive graphene skin could have a much easier time picking things up and dropping them off, too. As long as that touchy bot’s not growing any human skin, a softer more sensitive robot… sounds like a good thing.

For more of the best science & technology coverage, follow me on Twitter @hilarx.


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