Pioneering Scottish scientists are developing “electronic” skin – which could restore feeling in prosthetic limbs for amputees.
Experts say the new technology, which could be available in as little as five years’ time, will bring major changes to manufacturing, health and communications.
The skin would allow those with prosthetic limbs to feel again, and could allow an object to be “touched” by someone who is physically miles away – similar to life in James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar.
Robots could also be given a sense of touch and know what they are in contact with, improving safety for manufacturers.
There have been cases of accidents in workplaces where robots are used, such as last year when a worker in a Volkswagen factory in Germany died after a robot grabbed him and crushed him against a metal plate.
Dr Ravinder Dahiya, reader at Glasgow University and leader of the university’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies Group, said: “We currently have robots working in cages in the car industry, for example, and no human is allowed to go in that area. If these robots have skin, even if a human mistake is made, then the human will be safe.
“It might change the landscape so that when you go to a plant you might see robots and humans working side by side in the future.”
He also said artificial skin could be used on prosthetic hands, for example, to allow amputees to regain sensory feelings.
Dr Dahiya will be discussing his work at a TedX Glasgow event next month.
He said the technology could have a wide variety of uses in healthcare, adding: “It could be applied to be a ‘second skin’ for humans, with some sensors that could analyse sweat on a real-time basis.
“That could detect changes in the chemical composition which could be used as an early warning sign for a chronic disease, such as diabetes.”
Other healthcare uses include for operations such as laparoscopy – where a small camera is used to look inside the body – to help surgeons “feel” what is at the end of the instrument.
And electronic skin could take us into a world like the movie Avatar, where human characters use virtual reality bodies to explore other worlds.
He said: “I could be sitting in my office, but feeling objects sitting on another table miles away with some tools. Tactile feedback is critical for that Avatar-like concept, where you can remotely feel an environment or a surface or objects.”
A key component of the skin is graphene – the world’s thinnest material.
It is one million times thinner than a human hair, but also 200 times stronger than steels and conducts heat and electricity better than copper.
The team managed to find a low-cost way of developing sheets of the material as part of their work on electronic skin.
They also use nanowire technology – incredibly thin wires used to make sensors.
Dr Dahiya said: “In previous work (on skin for robots), we used off-the-shelf components and we integrated them in an innovative way which resulted in skin.
“Now we are working on an entire process building right through from nanowire to a full system. Five years from now, I envisage an ultra-flexible skin that will be able to sense multiple parameters.”