Photo credit: University of Texas at Austin

Newly developed stretchable electronic skin soon might give robots and other devices the same softness and touch sensitivity as human skin. This could prove especially promising for care of the aging, where a soft touch can make a huge difference.

 The new stretchable e-skin was developed by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Much like human skin has to stretch and bend to accommodate our movements, so too does e-skin,” said Nanshu Lu, PhD, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics who led the project. “No matter how much our e-skin stretches, the pressure response doesn’t change, and that is a significant achievement.”

Lu envisions the stretchable e-skin as a critical component for robot hands capable of mimicking human touch sensitivity. In caregiving settings like long-term care facilities, those robots could perform tasks such as checking a resident’s or patient’s pulse, providing gentle massages or assisting with daily activities. Lu emphasized the potential of robots to address the impending crisis of caregiving shortages, especially as the population ages globally.

“In the future, if we have more elderly than available caregivers, it’s going to be a crisis worldwide,” Lu said. “We need to find new ways to take care of people efficiently and also gently, and robots are an important piece of that puzzle.”

Traditional e-skin technology senses pressure from contact but struggles when stretched, leading to inaccurate readings and potentially excessive force application by robots. The newly developed stretchable e-skin, however, overcomes this limitation, enabling robots to perform sensitive tasks accurately without damaging delicate objects or applying unnecessary force.

Demonstrations of the stretchable e-skin showcased its versatility, with inflatable probes accurately capturing pulse waves and grippers securely holding objects without dropping them. The inflated skin-wrapped probe was used on human subjects to capture their pulse and pulse waves accurately. The deflated grippers can conformably hold on to a tumbler without dropping it, even when a coin is dropped inside. The device also pressed on a crispy taco shell without breaking it.