A team from The Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed the first ever autonomous humanoid robot with full-body artificial skin. They were able to create a system that paired artificial skin with control algorithms. This new technology will help robots become capable of sensing their own bodies and environment, which will be important when they inevitably start to be commonplace among humans.
If a robot is able to better navigate its environment through the use of sensing, it will be much safer around humans. One of the things they will be able to do is avoid unwanted contact and accidents.
The team responsible for the new technology included Prof. Gordon Cheng. The skin that was developed is made up of hexagonal cells that are about one inch in diameter. Each one of the hexagonal cells consists of a microprocessor and sensors, which help detect contact, acceleration, proximity, and temperature.
The actual skin cells are not new; they were developed 10 years ago by a Professor of Cognitive Systems at TUM, Gordon Cheng. These new developments by the team at TUM unlocked the full potential.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE.
The Problem of Computing Capacity
One of the major problems with the development of artificial skin is computing capacity. Because the human skin has about 5 million receptors, it has been a challenge to recreate it in robots. The constant processing of data through the use of sensors can overload systems.
The team at TUM decided not to monitor the skin constantly. Instead, they focused on events in order to reduce the need for massive processing effort by as much as 90%. In the newly developed artificial skin, individual cells transmit information only when there is a change in values. This means there is heavy reliance on the sensors to detect some type of sensation, which will in turn initiate the process.
Critical For Human-Robot Interaction
This new technique by Prof. Cheng and his team helps increase the safety of the machines. They are now the first to apply artificial skin to a human-size autonomous robot that is not dependent on external computation.
The robot that they used for the artificial skin is called the H-1 robot, and it has 1,260 cells and more than 13,000 sensors. The sensors and cells are located on the upper body, arms, legs, and the soles of the feet. Because of this, the robot can sense its entire body, from top to bottom. The H-1 can move along uneven surfaces and balance on one leg.
The H-1 robot is capable of safely hugging a human, which is a great accomplishment. These machines have such power that they can be extremely dangerous and injure humans when closely interacting. The H-1 is able to sense multiple parts of its body at once so that it does not exert too much force or pressure.
“This might not be as important in industrial applications, but in areas such as nursing care, robots must be designed for very close contact with people,” Gordon Cheng explained.
The new technology is very versatile, and it can still function even if some of the cells are lost.
“Our system is designed to work trouble-free and quickly with all kinds of robots,” says Gordon Cheng. “Now we’re working to create smaller skin cells with the potential to be produced in larger numbers.”
There are constant developments in the AI field that are bringing humans and robots closer together, and new technology like this is critical in facilitating a safe environment where both can operate.