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Artificial skins and new sensor technologies being developed by European scientists could help make robots more sensitive to tactile stimuli and improve their ability to communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans. The EU-funded project, “Skin-based technologies and capabilities for safe, autonomous and interactive robots” (ROBOSKIN), has developed new sensor technologies and management systems that give robots an artificial sense of touch, which had been an elusive quality.

According to the partners behind the research from Italy, Switzerland, and the UK, it was important to create cognitive mechanisms that use a sense of “touch” and behavior to make sure human-robot interaction is safe and effective for the envisaged future applications.

The artificial skin is modeled largely on real skin, which has a tiny network of nerves that sense or feel changes like hot/cold or rough/smooth. In this case, the electronic sensors collect this so-called “tactile data” and process it using application software that had been front-loaded to include some basic robot behaviors.

The ROBOSKIN project started in lab tests by classifying types or degrees of touch. Outside the lab, ROBOSKIN sensor patches were applied to common touch points on a humanoid robot designed to help autistic children communicate better at the University of Hertfordshire.

ROBOSKIN scientists explored various technologies, from the more basic capacitive sensors in today's sensing technologies, to higher-performing transducers found in piezoelectric materials, and flexible organic semiconductors.

While still at the pre-commercial demonstrator stage, the latest version of the tactile sensors will have wider potential in industry, say the researchers, as factories seek safe, cost-efficient ways of using robots in closer contact with human workers.

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