Creating Next-Gen Robotic e-Skin with Sensing and Actuation Capabilities

ECE Professor Ravinder Dahiya was awarded a $230,000 NSF Eager grant for “Flexible and Compressible e-Skin Integrated with Soft Magnetic Coil Based Ultra-thin Actuator and Touch Sensor for Robotics Applications.”

Abstract Source: NSF

Replication of Natural Skin characteristics is critically important for smooth operations of Robots. The touch sensory feedback from skin can allow robots to help elderly with daily tasks, and to safely interact with real world objects (e.g., grasping of fragile objects). Likewise, skin on surgical tools can allow clinicians to remotely feel the body parts to enable new research directions in digital health. To address the need various electronic skins (e-Skin) have been developed in recent years by integrating different types of touch sensors on flexible substrates. However, the e-Skin variants thus far have neglected the fact that natural skin has receptors/sensors embedded in soft tissues that are tightly coupled with muscles. With touch sensors alone, it is not possible for e-Skin to match the functionalities of natural skin and therefore seamless coupling between the receptors (sensors) and muscles (actuators) is much needed. To address this longstanding shortcoming in the e-Skin research, this project will evaluate the feasibility of a soft and compressible e-Skin that will have touch sensor integrated with soft electromagnetic coil-based flexible ultra-thin actuator. While advancing the research, this project will train graduate students in the interdisciplinary area of robotics, materials science, electromagnetics, sensing, and advanced manufacturing. Outreach efforts will include participation of community college students during summer to enrich their education and careers by leveraging the existing Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site through Pathways program. The impact of this multidisciplinary research will be seen in the near term in academia, industry, and social enterprises.

The project will evaluate the feasibility of novel device that will have touch sensor integrated with soft electromagnetic coil underneath to have both sensing and actuation functions. Various designs and shapes of coils, materials for soft sensors, and the fabrications approach will be evaluated for potential scale up for large area e-Skin. The proposed devices will be characterized for controlled or programmed thickness mode expansion and compression by allowing suitable current to flow through the soft electromagnetic coil to obtain magnetic field of desired intensity and polarity. The project plans to demonstrate a challenging aspect of controlled variation of e-Skin thickness by identifying a structure that allows the same while also having sensors for touch feedback. Further the project will demonstrate the feasibility of seamless integration of multiple devices, in soft and flexible form factors with tunable stiffness/softness and shape morphing capability in e-skin. The proposed foundational work will lead to a new generation of smart and complex systems such as soft robots with human-like emotions and physical abilities.

Related Northeastern Global News story: Electronic robot skin would expand and contract like human skin with device being developed by Northeastern researcher

Related Faculty: Ravinder Dahiya

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering