Researchers have found a material that can mimic human skin and improve robots’ sensing capabilities.
Usually rigid semiconductor materials that create robots’ circuits limit the machines’ movement or sensing, either because they are not flexible or don’t permit electrons to flow efficiently. But the rubber electronics and sensors tested by a University of Houston team could solve this challenge by providing flexibility and sufficient electron flow. A new study published in the Science Advances journal found the material allowed the electronic functions to retain their electrical performance by more than 55% when the material was stretched by 50%.
“It’s a piece of rubber, but it has the function of a circuit and sensors,” Cunjiang Yu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston and study author, told Live Science.
The rubber comes from low-cost, commercially-available materials that, as a result, allow the skin to be more widely produced at a lower price point. And because it starts in liquid form, it can be poured into molds and used for a variety of purposes like robotic skins, biomedical implants, wearable electronics or smart surgical gloves. Specifically for robotics, such an artificial skin would help the machine better sense its surroundings, and in turn protect humans it may work with.
The research team performed a series of experiments to test the material’s strain, pressure and temperature sensors including detecting water temperature and performing American Sign Language when applied to a robotic hand.
“This will change the field of stretchable electronics,” Yu said. The researchers plan to continue improving the material’s electronic performance and flexibility.