A team of researchers from the US and China have developed a synthetic ‘skin’ capable of sensing pressure with a similar sensitivity to the human fingertip. The technology could bring us one step closer to a smart skin for the robotics industry, allowing devices to ‘feel’ their environment.
Using vertical zinc oxide nanowires, the researchers assembled arrays consisting of approximately 8,000 pressure-sensitive transistors, known as ‘taxels’. Each taxel can independently convert mechanical stress into local electronic controlling signals, through the use of the piezoelectric effect.
The sensors can differentiate changes in pressure as low as 10 kilopascals, which is similar to the sensitivity of human skin.
“Any mechanical motion, such as the movement of arms or the fingers of a robot, could be translated to control signals,” explained lead author Zhong Lin Wang, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This could make artificial skin smarter and more like the human skin. It would allow the skin to feel activity on the surface.”
Besides the obvious robotic applications for a pressure-sensitive synthetic skin, the transparent and flexible arrays have been proposed for a number of other uses including microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), human-computer interfaces and devices that involve mechanical deformation.