A new artificial nervous system has been developed by Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee and researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The new technology was created by Tee and a group of researchers and scientists from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering. Tee and his team have been developing the new e-skin for one and a half years, and he himself has been working on the technology for many more. It has been his goal to create a technology that would help robots and prosthetics have a better sense of touch.
The new system is called the Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES), the research and developments were published in Science Robotics on July 18, 2019. Before this development, electronic skins had lots of wires and were prone to damage.
The new e-skin has the same sense of touch as human skin, and it is ultra-high responsive. It is also able to deal with damage better than real skin. Tee explained the technology and how in some ways, it is superior to the skin we have on our bodies.
“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake. Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking. similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well.”
The researchers at the university used the human sensory nervous system as a model. The ACES electronic nervous system detects signals similarly to the human nervous system, but the ACES has a network of sensors and a single electrical conductor. This is different than the nerve groupings in human skin. Professor Tee spoke on the reasons why the e-skin is modeled after the human sensory nervous system.
“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.”
The ACES system is faster than the human sensory nervous system. It can detect touches more than 1,000 times faster. It can also differentiate physical contacts between different sensors. It is able to do this in less than 60 nanoseconds, the fastest ever for e-skin technology. Another advantage of the e-skin is that it is able to tell the shape, hardness, and texture of objects within 10 milliseconds. It is able to do this because of the high fidelity and capture speed. Like real human skin, the new e-skin is robust to physical damage. Skin, human or electronic, is in constant interaction with the outside environment, this causes a lot of damage. Because the ACES system uses an electrical conductor with independent sensors, the skins are still functional as long as there is at least one connection between the sensor and the conductor.
This new development in technology can be used in a lot of different areas like Artificial Intelligence applications such as prosthetic limbs and human machine interfaces. Professor Tee talked about the possibilities.
“Scalability is a critical consideration as big pieces of high performing electronic skins are required to cover the relatively large surface areas of robots and prosthetic devices. ACES can be easily paired with any kind of sensor skin layers, for example, those designed to sense temperatures and humidity, to create high performance ACES-enabled electronic skin with an exceptional sense of touch that can be used for a wide range of purposes.”
This technology will continue to develop, and It’s another field that is moving rapidly and producing amazing opportunities. It will be especially useful in robotics as that is where most e-skin is currently applied.