Robotics: New skin-like sensors almost always fit
7/28/2023 Production of the future News

Robotics: New skin-like sensors almost always fit

Researchers from the Robotics and AI Institute MIRMI at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed an automated process with which they can produce soft sensors. These measuring cells are universal and can be attached to almost any object. They are to be used especially in robotics and prosthetics.

The sensor skin can be attached to any body, here on a doecahedron The sensor skin can be attached to any body, here on a doecahedron.
"Grasping and perceiving the environment is very important to understand how we can interact with it effectively," says Sonja Groß. An important factor for interacting with objects is their shape, she says. "It determines how we can perform specific tasks," says the scientist from the Munich Institute of Robotics and Machine Intelligence (MIRMI) at TUM. In addition, the physical properties of an object such as its hardness and flexibility also influence how it can be grasped and handled, for example.

New "framework" for soft sensors presented for the first time

Traditional sensors reach their limits when it comes to customisation. Until now, there was no process that could be used to produce sensors for rigid objects of any shape and size. This is where the research of Sonja Groß and her colleague Diego Hidalgo comes in. The special feature: A soft skin-like material that nestles around the objects. What's more, the research group has developed a "framework" to produce this skin in a largely automated way. And it works like this:
"In software, we build the structure for the sensor technology," says Hidalgo, "we send this information to a 3-D printer where our soft sensors are produced." In the process, the printer introduces a conductive black paste into liquid silicone. While the silicone hardens, the paste remains liquid and is enclosed by the silicone. When the sensors are pressed or stretched, their electrical resistance changes. "This tells us how much a surface has been pressed or stretched. We use this principle to understand interactions with objects in general and, more specifically, to be able to control an artificial hand that interacts with these objects," explains Hidalgo. The special feature: The sensors embedded in silicone adapt to the respective surface (for example fingers or hands) and still reliably deliver precise data that can be used for interaction with the environment.

New perspectives for robotics and especially prosthetics

"The integration of these soft, skin-like sensors in 3-D objects opens up new avenues of advanced haptics in artificial intelligence," Executive Director of MIRMI Sami Haddadin is also convinced. This is because the sensors provide valuable information about pressure forces and deformations in real time – in other words, they give immediate feedback. In this way, they expand the perception of an object or a robot hand – and a more sophisticated and sensitive interaction becomes possible. 
This work has the potential to revolutionise industries such as robotics, prosthetics and human-machine interaction in general by enabling wireless and customisable sensing for arbitrary objects and machines.
Sami Haddadin, Executive Director of MIRMI
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