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U of Minnesota researchers develop electronic “skin” to make robots more sensitive


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: May 17th, 2017

Researchers at the University of Minnesota (UMN) have created a method to print stretchable, electronic “skin” that could help robots feel their environment more sensitively.

According to co-inventor Michael McAlpine, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UMN, the technology has many practical applications. “Putting this type of ‘bionic skin’ on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries, which would make surgery easier instead of just using cameras like they do now,” says McAlpine. “These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”

The UMN research team used a customized 3D-printer to build the multi-layered fabric, which is composed of silicone, conductive ink and a pressure sensor. The flexible design can stretch up to three times its original size.

“This is a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics,” says McAlpine. “This could take us into so many directions.” For example, he says the technology might also be used to print electronics on real human skin, which could be valuable in health monitoring or the detection of hazardous materials.

“While we haven’t printed on human skin yet, we were able to print on the curved surface of a model hand using our technique,” he comments. “We also interfaced a printed device with the skin and were surprised that the device was so sensitive that it could detect your pulse in real time.”

McAlpine says the team’s next step is to focus on semiconductor inks and applying the technology to human skin. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of the National Institutes of Health, funded the research.

Source: University of Minnesota News & Events

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