Smart e-skin for soft robotic perception
Sometimes a chance meeting results in two pieces of a jigsaw fitting together perfectly – such was the situation when Yunjie Yang met Francesco Giorgio-Serchi.
One was an expert in sensing technology, the other a specialist in soft robotics; both were working at the University of Edinburgh and met at an ‘away day’ in 2019 when they struck up a conversation about robotic awareness.
“From a personal perspective, we get along so well, we sort of have a reciprocal love, I mean, I’m Italian, so I speak bluntly, in this respect,” Francesco joked.
“We really merged two fairly distant fields. He was telling me about special kinds of tomography-inspired sensors, which I didn’t know anything about. And I was working on these octopus-inspired robots, compliant manipulators and compliant robotics mechanisms. It is really, really hard to reconstruct their shape in real time and they are almost impossible to control if you’re not able to do a sort of shape reconstruction.”
Together they hypothesised that manipulators which essentially behaved like tentacles could have sensors which would detect environmental factors in real time, allowing controlled movement. The solution would be a flexible electronic ‘skin’ – or an e-skin.
“The major funding of this project is from the DDI Chancellor’s Fellowship,” Yunjie explained. “It supports the development of this technology, but later with the support of Edinburgh Innovations, we have some translational research funding to further develop this technology. We want to validate the potential application of this technology in different domains, including soft surgical robots. These will enable a perceptive sense similar to humans or animals so that doctors can more accurately control and realise the motions of those surgical robots. This is an ongoing project supported by the Medical Research Council Impact Acceleration Account. We are also exploring other potential applications, including applying this e-skin technology to underwater robots.”
The two scientists have found explaining the concept of controlling soft manipulators to people in the robotics field straightforward, as there is a recognised technology gap. If you do not know the shape of the manipulator, there is no way of knowing where the tip or gripper is. Outside of this field, they have found it helpful to refer to the technology used in the making of animated films like Avatar, in which actors wear suits covered in sensors.
“As a matter of fact, if you look at the recent underwater version of Avatar, they had to develop a completely new technology, just because tracking those dots marked on the body underwater was very, very hard,” Francesco said.
“The easiest explanation for me is like, imagine being able to have a sensor that can be worn like a shirt, you don’t need a camera or anything else, you just wear the item. Then, on your computer, you immediately have the shape of the item, without having any sort of external visual feedback.”
With the patents filed, Yunjie and Francesco are working with other areas of the university, including the Edinburgh Medical School, to refine the routes to commercialisation.
“The biomedical environment is one that has a lot of value from an ethical perspective, so I’m sure both of us would be keen to see these materialised in maybe prosthetics or wearable technologies for rehabilitation,” Francesco said.
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