If we’re going to make robots, exoskeletons, smart prosthetics, and artificial skin, what’s to hold us back from giving them superhuman attributes? We’ve mentioned in the past that DARPA, the “invent the impossible” U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded the development of SRI’s assistive exoskeleton technology for soldiers subsequently adapted for seniors. DARPA also funded a research study of non-invasive transcranial current stimulation to improve cognitive performance.
DARPA isn’t mentioned directly in reference to the University of Texas at Arlington‘s patent for smart skin. The original concept was to empower robots to work more efficiently by equipping them with super-sensitive skin, according to UTA electrical engineering professor Zeynep Çelik-Butler. A list of possible applications for the UTA invention includes “weaving the skin into the uniform of a combat soldier so that any toxic chemicals could be detected,” so you can assume DARPA’s wizard engineers at least took a look. The skin is constructed of millions of flexible sensors made of zinc oxide nanorods encased in a chemical and moisture resistant polyimide, or artificial polymer. The self-powered nanorods don’t need external power to transmit data and are only about 0.2 microns in diameter, thin enough to be worn by humans, woven into garments, or used as “skin” for robots to add sensitivity to the device’s other enhancements.
As medical researchers and engineers tackle problems related to broken, worn out, or disease-damaged organs and body parts, there will likely always be a “Don’t just make it, make it better!” factor.