Robots are one step closer to having a human sense of touch, thanks to a thin, flexible film that mimics the sensitivity of a human finger. The device may become useful in the next generation of robots and in automated tools used for microsurgery. Touch is one of the first senses that humans develop, but because of its complexity it has been one of the last to be tackled by robotics. Touch has to relay information about the surface of an object, and also the amount of pressure needed in order to grasp it.
Previous touch sensors have had big problems with rigidity and durability. When constructed out of hard materials such as silicon, they were not able to contour to the robotic ‘hand’, while the daily wear and tear of touching also tended to bend and scratch the delicate materials. Robots clearly need something “more like human skin,” says chemical engineer Ravi Saraf from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “And we’re getting there.”