Technology 3 min read

New Synthetic Skin Detects Touches 1000 Times Faster Than Human Skin

For prosthetics and robots, Singaporean researchers create an ultrasensitive synthetic skin that’s 1000 times faster than the human nerves.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

We humans rely on our organic skin, which, in addition to hairs acting as nerve organs, contain many sensory nerves. These cutaneous nerves relay sensory information, like temperature and pressure, to the central nervous system — the brain — in real-time.

For years, scientists have been thinking of a similar sensory system using artificial receptors. When we bring up the term synthetic skin, it’s not only robots that are concerned.

An efficient tactile sense is one of the significant characteristics we expect socially-interactive robots to have. But humans too can use artificial skin to enhance their haptic skills or to give prosthetic limbs feeling.

Ultrasensitive Synthetic Skin: 1000 Times Faster!

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) created a new synthetic skin using an array of 1-millimeter square physical sensors.

This new e-skin system, called Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES) is made from rubber and plastic composite material and can feel touch 1,000 times faster than the human skin nerves.

Taking inspiration from the human sensory nervous system, it took the NUS team a year and a half to develop the ACES system. Its sensors forming a network via a single electrical conductor, ACES is unlike both, the human skin and other existing electronic skins that are prone to damage and suffer from poor scalability.

Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee led the engineers from NUS’ Department of Materials Science and Engineering. In his own words:

“The human sensory nervous system is extremely efficient, and it works all the time to the extent that we often take it for granted. It is also very robust to damage. Our sense of touch, for example, does not get affected when we suffer a cut. If we can mimic how our biological system works and make it even better, we can bring about tremendous advancements in the field of robotics where electronic skins are predominantly applied.”

As the ACES artificial skin is pressed for whatever reason, the feeling translates to electrical signals that the sensors transmit back to a receiver. Though connected in a single system, each sensor operates independently to identify a unique electrical pulse, or sensation.

According to the results of the study, ACES is more than 1,000 times faster than the human skin in detecting touches. Sixty nanoseconds are all it takes for ACES to differentiate physical contacts between different sensors according to the team. That’s the fastest ever achieved for an e-skin technology.

The ACES system also can “accurately identify the shape, texture, and hardness of objects within just 10 milliseconds, ten times faster than the blinking of an eye.” 

Ultra-responsive, ACES is also robust and as it is potentially suited for giving robots a sense of touch, thus more versatility and better performance, it could also do the same for human prosthetic limbs.

The team’s paper “A neuro-inspired artificial peripheral nervous system for scalable electronic skins” is published in Science Robotics.

Read More: New Haptic Armband Gives VR a new Sense of Touch

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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