A flexible "skin" with optical sensors that would give robots a more human touch has been developed by Belgian scientists.
According to lead researcher Jeroen Missinne at Ghent University, existing sensors are based on simple pressure switches and motor resistance, which limits their ability to detect subtle changes in pressure and distinguish between different textures.
A key reason for this is the electrical components and wires they are made from tend to be inflexible.
To overcome the obstacle, Missinne and colleagues created an artificial skin embedded with optical sensors.
The skin consists of two layers of parallel polymer strips lying perpendicular to each other to form a grid. These are separated by a thin sheet of plastic.
Light is constantly fed into the polymer strips, which act like optical fibres in that their geometry encourages internal reflection and reduces light loss.
When pressure is applied on the skin the strips are pushed closer together and allows light to escape from one set into the other. The detection of this leakage of light provides a highly sensitive feedback mechanism.
Surgical robots are already able to provide some limited tactile feedback to surgeons. Missinne says this could be greatly enhanced if they were covered with his sensor-rich skin.
"We're desperate for new materials to let robots be able to feel the world," New Scientist magazine quoted Chris Melhuish of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK as saying.
It's equally important, he says, that artificial skin gives a pressure reading that allows a robot to distinguish between different types of objects and different patterns of forces and Missinne hopes that the novel skin would successfully do this.