Nanowire Skin May Grant Robots a (Very Limited) Sense of Touch

E-skin glove and eggResearchers at the University of California at Berkeley, backed by DARPA funding, have come up with a thin prototype material that's getting science nerds all in a tizzy about the future of robotics.

This material is made from germanium and silicon nanowires grown on a cylinder, then rolled around a sticky polyimide substrate. What does that get you? As CNet says, "The result was a shiny, thin, and flexible electronic material organized into a matrix of transistors, each of which with hundreds of semiconductor nanowires."

But what takes the material to the next level is the thin layer of pressure-sensitive rubber added to the prototype's surface, capable of measuring pressures between zero and 15 kilopascals—about the normal range of pressure for a low-intensity human activity, like, say, writing a blog post. Basically, this rubber layer turns the nanowire material into a sort of artificial skin, which is being played up as a miracle material.

We definitely shouldn't minimize the achievement of the 7.6-inch prototype—it's one very big step toward truly robotic skin, which could be used both for humans and robotics. On the human side, it's not inconceivable that someday this material could be used as a prosthesis, plugged right into a human's nerve system. And on the robotics side, the material could give a robotic hand the delicacy needed to handle activities with varying degrees of pressure—like, say, using enough strength to lift a heavy cast-iron pan, then immediately being delicate enough to grab an egg from the fridge.

But pressure is only one of several senses that are incorporated under the general umbrella of touch. There's also temperature, wetness, pain, texture, material quality, fragility—sensitivity to all of those different elements are still needed before this nanowire is a real substitute for skin.

Also, the dream of connecting this skin with the human nerve system to provide a prosthesis is pure science fiction for now. That's not to say that it'll never happen, but like a lot of these theories, it certainly won't happen in the foreseeable future.

But it's still a tremendous advance, one that we'll be watching closely to see how it evolves.

[Image credit: Ali Javey and Kuniharu Takei]

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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