O ne of the problems in building human-like robots is giving them our ability to feel. Sensory devices capable of feeling objects have existed for a long time, but the problem comes with creating sensors malleable enough for use on a moving robotic limb.
Now, engineering researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a 3D printing process capable of printing stretchable electronic sensory devices sensitive enough to be able to detect a human pulse - the groundwork for bionic skin.
The specially built printer operates via four nozzles, each of which prints with a different ink. Layer by layer the device is built up, creating a sensor capable of stretching up to three times its original size, making it perfect for use in bionic skin.
The technology has a wide range of possible applications. “Putting this type of 'bionic skin' on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries,” explained Michael McAlpine, lead researcher on the study. This, he said, “would make surgery easier instead of just using cameras like they do now. These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”
Use of these sensors won’t be limited to just robots. Unlike most plastics used in 3D printers, the inks used for the device solidify at room temperature, meaning they can be printed directly onto human skin. This wearable technology could be used for health monitoring, the researchers suggested, or by soldiers for the detection of dangerous chemicals or explosives.