The ability of robotic limbs and prosthetics to mimic human touch just got a considerable boost through a robotic sensors project that’s led in part by researchers at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS). The research team, which includes members from Scotland’s manufacturing sector, has created devices that are made from 3D graphene. These devices have sensors that respond to pressure, offering distributed touch and providing haptic feedback. In this application, applying pressure to 3D graphene foam causes the material to change its electronic resistance, giving it the ability to detect different degrees of pressure. Just like human touch.

Project member Dr. Carlos Garcia Nunez explains, “Within robotics and wearable electronics, the use of pressure sensors is a vital element, to provide either an information input system, or to give robotic systems human-like motor skills. An advanced material like 3D graphene foam offers excellent potential for use in such applications, due to its outstanding electrical, mechanical, and chemical properties.”

So what is 3D graphene? Flexible, light, and stronger than steel, graphene has a well-earned reputation as a “wonder material.” To go from 2D to 3D, graphene is layered with a binder, often into hexagonal forms. And porous 3D graphene-based foams, sponges, aerogels, and hydrogels have been increasing in popularity due to their high electrical conductivity, offering fast electron transport, and great heat conduction.

While prosthetics are an aspect of the UWS project, robotics systems will be the focus of the team’s next phase. Team member Professor Des Gibson says, “Over recent years the advancements in the robotics industry have been remarkable. However, due to a lack of sensory capabilities, robotic systems often fail to execute certain tasks easily. For robots to reach their full potential, accurate pressure sensors, capable of providing greater tactile ability, are required.” Co-member Marco Caffio adds, “[This] could have a transformative impact on how robotics can be used for a whole range of real-world applications from surgery to precision manufacturing.”