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An electronic second skin with incredible possibilities

The “electronic skin” consists of a wireless flexible skin patch that enables the exchange of tactile stimuli between a human operator and a remotely controlled robot. It had already happened that some engineers developed robots that can be controlled remotely by a human operator. Most of these systems are bulky, difficult to control, and typically provide minimal feedback. In this new research, published in the journal Science Advances, coming from the City University of Hong Kong, Dalian University of Technology, Tsinghua University and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, the scientists develop a more intuitive system.

A skin patch that can provide haptic feedback from a human operator to a remotely controlled robot.

A wireless skin connection

The device is sensitive enough to capture motion and stress factors, such as twisting or turning. Patch is placed on the operator’s joints. Sensors are made of react when a patch is folded and send the corresponding signal to the robot directly via Bluetooth or, alternatively, via a local area network or the internet. The sensors, specifically, are made of piezoresistive materials, whose electrical resistance changes under mechanical stress, thus allowing the capture of the human operator’s movements.

The system also allows for two-way feedback as similar sensors are attached to parts of the robot. Signals are sent to the electronic skin, where they activate tiny magnets that vibrate at different frequencies depending on the pressure applied.

Faster, easier, smarter

What sets this patch apart is that it is easier to handle, and apparently provides more feedback than its predecessors. The device, according to the researchers, is so sensitive that the operator can even distinguish between softer and harder pieces of rubber held by a robot.

Using Bluetooth, feedback signals are delivered in as little as four microseconds. This duration, as is reported in the article, increases in many cases when operating over a Wi-Fi network. However, regardless of how the data is transmitted, the delay is less than the 550 microseconds it takes an average human to react to tactile stimuli. A battery allows more than an hour of uninterrupted work, while in standby mode it can last up to two weeks.

A life-saving prototype

Although it is still a prototype, this innovative system in the future could be very useful in operations that are dangerous for humans. For example, radioactive waste cleanup and ordinance disposal are some of the areas where remote robotic assistance via haptic feedback could be really effective.


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