Flexible e-skin to spur rise of soft machines that feel

A team of scientists has developed electronic skin that could pave the way for soft, flexible robotic devices to assist with surgical procedures or aid people’s mobility.

Image of flexible e-skin fitted to a soft robot arm
Sections of the team's flexible e-skin fitted to a soft robot arm (credit: Yunjie Yang)

The creation of stretchable e-skin by Edinburgh researchers gives soft robots for the first time a level of physical self-awareness similar to that of people and animals.

The technology could aid breakthroughs in soft robotics by enabling devices to detect precisely their movement in the most sensitive of surroundings, experts say.

Pliable robots

Soft robots – which are made of pliable materials rather than metal or hard plastic – with e-skin could have a range of applications, including surgical tools, prosthetics and devices to explore hazardous environments.

Unlike traditional rigid robots, which have a set range of movements, soft robots are highly flexible.

Image of a section of e-skin being held with tweezers
A single section of flexible e-skin (credit: Yunjie Yang)

This poses a major challenge to developing the sensing systems that are essential for robots to carry out precise tasks and interact safely with people and the environment, researchers say.

Precise sensing

Without e-skin, it is hard for soft robots to understand their own motion and shape, and how these qualities interact with their environment.

The Edinburgh team, working with the University’s commercialisation service, Edinburgh Innovations, has developed a technology that overcomes this problem and provides soft robots with highly accurate, real-time sensing abilities.

Flexible material

Researchers created a flexible e-skin made of a thin layer of silicone embedded with wires and sensitive detectors.

Using the e-skin – which is 1mm thick – in combination with artificial intelligence, researchers were able to give soft robots the ability to rapidly sense their motions and deformations with millimetre accuracy in three dimensions, in real time.

Complex movements

The team tested their e-skin by fitting it to a soft robot arm. They found that the technology was able to sense a range of complex bending, stretching and twisting movements across every part of the device.

The flexibility of the technology we have developed means it could be applied to various soft robots to enable them to accurately perceive their own shape and movements. Ultimately, that means we are now closer to making some of the most exciting ideas in soft robotics a reality.

Dr Francesco Giorgio-SerchiSchool of Engineering

Step change

The study, published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, also involved the University of Hong Kong.

The researchers received support from the Data Driven Innovation programme, part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. The team plans to commercialise the technology.

The perceptive senses endowed to robotic devices by this new technology are similar to those of people and animals. This new level of physical self-awareness represents a step change in the sensing capabilities of soft robots.

Dr Yunjie YangSchool of Engineering

Celebration year

The e-skin is the latest development in computer science and AI since the University established its first research hubs in the disciplines 60 years ago.

A year-long programme of events will mark achievements over the past six decades and look to the future of computer science and AI at Edinburgh.

More information about the 60 year celebration:

Related links

Journal paper

School of Engineering

Edinburgh Innovations

60 years of computer science and AI