Robots with feelings have been a trope in science fiction since … well, since robots first appeared in fiction. But how about robots that can actually “feel”—as in physically experiencing the sensation of touch the same way humans do?
Georgia Tech has has developed a synthetic robot “skin” packed with piezoelectric nanowire transistors that generate electricity when they are touched or exposed to pressure. In other words, it could potentially allow robots to physically sense the world in a way that is at least sort of like the sensation of having human skin. According to the researchers, the new material offers a 15-fold improvement in sensor density and spatial resolution over previous techniques.
The nanowire transistors in the skin produce a current that is controlled by the electrical charge generated when force is applied. Performance does not decrease even when the material is deformed.
The next logical step, of course, would be wrapping this stuff over prosthetic limbs, potentially providing enhanced sensation for humans, as well as in other human-machine interface applications. The Georgia Tech team is also working on developing a system that can interpret the signals from the electronic “skin” and respond instantaneously.
Below is a video featuring Zhong Lin Wang presenting “Nanogenerators and piezotronics – from basic science to novel applications” at the Network for Computational Nanotechnology at the University of Illinois.