Sensitive skin makes robots more self-aware

Scientists at the Technical University of Munich say they’ve moved closer to the development of self-aware robots by giving them sensitive skin.

The idea is that if robots can react to gentle touches, they’ll be one step closer to a sense of their own identity. As with human skin, the way the artificial skin is touched could, for example, lead to a spontaneous retreat when the robot hits an object, or cause it to look around to search for the source of contact.

Such a robotcould be especially useful for people traveling in constantly changing environments.

“In contrast to the tactile information provided by the skin, the sense of sight is limited because objects can be hidden,” explains TUM’s Philip Mittendorfer.

The centerpiece of the new robotic shell is a five square centimeter hexagonal plate or circuit board containing four infrared sensors that detect anything closer than one centimeter.

“We thus simulate light touch,” says Mittendorfer. “This corresponds to our sense of the fine hairs on our skin being gently stroked.”

Temperature sensors and an accelerometer allow the machine to accurately register the movement of individual limbs, and thus to learn what body parts it has just moved.

“We try to pack many different sensory modalities into the smallest of spaces,” says Mittendorfer. “In addition, it is easy to expand the circuit boards to later include other sensors, for example, pressure.”

The boards are placed together forming a honeycomb-like, planar structure to be worn by the robot. Only a small piece of skin is currently complete, but already shows that the principle works. Just a light pat or blow ensures that the arm reacts.

“We will close the skin and generate a prototype which is completely enclosed with these sensors and can interact anew with its environment – a machine that notices when you tap it on the back, even in the dark,” claims professor Gordon Cheng.