Advances in artificial skin give prosthetics a sense of touch


South Korean and US researchers are working closely to develop a new type of artificial skin designed to cover prosthetic limbs and provide the tactile sensations of pressure, temperature, and humidity for its wearers.

Prosthetics have come a long way, recently culminating in Les Baugh, a double amputee who is the first to wear two robotic arms that he can controlled using his mind. The next step in helping amputees achieve even greater independence with their prosthetic limbs is the ability to recreate the experience of direct sensation when touching objects and various surfaces.

Detailed in a paper recently published in Nature Communications, the researchers working on this new technology express the ultimate aim of interfacing their artificial skin with a patient’s nerves, helping “the prosthetic hand and laminated electronic skin [fulfill]many complex operations such as hand shaking, keyboard tapping, ball grasping, holding a cup of hot or cold drink, touching dry or wet surfaces and human to human contact.”

This new skin is made from a transparent silicon material called polydimethylsiloxane (or PDMS) that is flexible and embedded with silicon nanoribbons. These nanoribbons provide tactile feedback by generating electricity whenever they are stretched and squished. They can also sense hot or cold, and coupled with special humidity sensors made up of capacitors, the artificial skin can sense whether the surface of an object is either wet or dry.

The researchers are also intent on ensuring that people without prosthetics who come in contact with this artificial skin have a positive reaction. According to the paper’s authors, “For prosthetic devices and artificial skin to feel natural, their temperature profile must be controlled to match that of the human body.” To achieve this, the artificial skin include thermal actuators that regulate the amount of heat the skin emitts.

With advances like these, the kind of artificial hand enjoyed by Luke Skywalker will soon become reality.

(featured image credit: Kim et al./Nature Communications)

About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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