Scientists Build First Robot With Full-Body Skin That Can Literally Feel You

Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby are some of the tools that promote early forms of man-machine teaming. Both virtual assistants can listen to you and give you ideas, allowing you to utilize your mobile devices for better daily use. 

The rise of such tools indicate that the tech industry is moving closer to building intelligent technologies. The goal is to create assistants that are not only your phones but are robots that can support you digitally and in some physical activities in the house, workplace and other areas. 

Scientists want these robots not only to listen and talk to you. They want them to feel you for better man-machine teaming. 

A team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany developed what they described as the first autonomous humanoid robot with full-body artificial skin. The sensitive synthetic skin enables the robot to sense its own body and surroundings.

The human-inspired skin, described in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE, has hexagonal cells containing a microprocessor and sensors that detect physical contact, acceleration, proximity and temperature. Researchers said giving robots the sense of touch can improve your mobility and safety when operating near people. 

Gordon Cheng, a professor of cognitive systems at TUM, developed the skin cells 10 years ago. However, it was only recently added to a robot due to lack of a sophisticated system to support the material in the past. 

In the latest development, Cheng and his team copied how the human nervous system works to develop an event-based system that the artificial skin uses when “feeling” something. The system allows the robot to focus on certain areas when changes occur for less computing errors. 

During tests, the researchers placed 1,260 skin cells and more than 13,000 sensors on upper body, arms, legs and feet of a robot, called H-1. They said the artificial skin gave the robot "bodily sensation" that made it sensitive to external factors. 

In one test, H-1 felt an uneven floor after sensing changes on the skin on its feet. The robot responded and was able to balance on one leg to avoid the obstacle. 

It was also able to hug a person safely by making the right movements and contact pressures. In the past, robots tend to exert forces that could cause serious injuries in a human.

"Our system is designed to work trouble-free and quickly with all kinds of robots,” Cheng said in a press release. "Now we're working to create smaller skin cells with the potential to be produced in larger numbers."

TUM Robot Each cell of this artificial skin developed by researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is equipped with a microprocessor and sensors to detect contact, acceleration, proximity and temperature. New control algorithms made it possible for the first time to apply artificial skin to a human-sized robot. Astrid Eckert/TUM