Peratech Limited has been commissioned by the MIT Media Lab to develop a new type of electronic ‘skin’ that enables robotic devices to detect not only that they have been touched but also where and how hard the touch was.
The key to the sensing technology is Peratech’s patented ‘QTC’ materials. QTC’s, or Quantum Tunnelling Composites, are a unique new material type which provides a measured response to force and/or touch by changing its electrical resistance – much as a dimmer light switch controls a light bulb. This enables a simple electronic circuit within the robot to determine touch. Being easily formed into unique shapes – including being ‘draped’ over an object much like a garment might, QTC’s provide a metaphor for how human skin works to detect touch.
Uniquely, QTC’s provide a ‘proportional’ response – in other words detecting ‘how hard’ they have been touched. Further, using Peratech’s patented xy scanning technology, the robot is able to detect where on a matrix of sensors applied to areas such as the forearms, shoulders and torso, it has been touched.
As robotic devices continue to make inroads to our daily life, their ability to understand the presence and interaction with humans and other objects within a space becomes critically important. This research project is hoped to produce results which could soon be applied to a range of robotics projects that MIT works upon.
Peratech’s QTC technology has an established track record for use in robotics, having previously been adopted by NASA for their Robonaut device and by Shadow Robot in the UK, producers of what is widely regarded as the World’s most advanced robotic hand, which have utilised QTC to sense ‘touch’. However, this project with MIT is a World first in enabling a human to interact – through touch across the body of a robot – much as they would with another human.