New flexible electronic skin aids human-machine interactions

New York: Scientists have created a fast and inexpensive new method to develop an electronic skin that can aid robots and prosthetic devices to attain abilities akin to human skin that can detect pressure, temperature and other sensations that allow tactile interactions with the environment.

The new method, developed by researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University in the US and Portugal’s University of Coimbra, can create an ultrathin, stretchable electronic skin, which could be used for a variety of human-machine interactions, by producing thin-film circuits with integrated microelectronics.

These electronic skins could be used for many applications, including prosthetic devices, wearable health monitors, robotics and virtual reality as well as a variety of human-machine interactions.

A major challenge is transferring ultrathin electrical circuits onto complex 3D surfaces and then having the electronics be bendable and stretchable enough to allow movement.

But in the new approach reported in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, the team patterned a circuit template onto a sheet of transfer tattoo paper with an ordinary desktop laser printer.

They then coated the template with silver paste, which adhered only to the printed toner ink.

On top of the silver paste, the team deposited a gallium-indium liquid metal alloy that increased the electrical conductivity and flexibility of the circuit.

Finally, they added external electronics such as microchips with a conductive “glue” made of vertically aligned magnetic particles embedded in a polyvinyl alcohol gel.

The team then transferred the electronic tattoo to various objects and demonstrated several applications of the new method, such as controlling a robot prosthetic arm, monitoring human skeletal muscle activity and incorporating proximity sensors into a 3D model of a hand.

Previously, some scientists developed flexible “electronic tattoos” for this purpose but their production is typically slow, expensive and requires clean-room fabrication methods such as photolithography.