Scientists have created electronic robot skins that can detect a puff of air. But whack that same robot with a 2-by-4 and the skin reacts the same as if it were a gentle breeze. That’s a problem because robots or prostheses wearers need to know when a touch is harmful or benign. Now researchers in China are lighting up the robot world with a new electronic skin that glows to indicate harmful pressure. This inspiration came from the bioluminescent Atolla jellyfish, a deep-sea creature that flashes like a neon sign in a donut shop when it detects danger.
The development of the glowing skin by Bin Hu and colleagues at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology was reported in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. The part of the skin that can detect slight pressure, say from a butterfly landing, is essentially an electronic sandwich. Two layers of stretchy poly-dimethysiloxane (PDMS) film embedded with silver nanowires produce an electronic signal when exposed to weak forces. Meshed within the nanowire electrodes is another layer of PDMS embedded with phosphors. Increase the force from a breeze to a squeeze, and the skin begins to glow. The stronger the pressure, the brighter the skin glows.
This jellyfish-inspired evolution in electronic-skin technology more closely mimics human skin in its ability to detect potential injury-causing pressure. The advancement could be a limb-saver for prostheses wearers or even industrial robots in hostile environments.