Humans use the sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task such as picking up a cup of coffee or shaking someone’s hand. Without it, humans can even lose their sense of balance when walking. Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans but robots today still cannot feel objects well.
The Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES) is an artificial nervous system with ultra-high responsiveness and robustness to damage and can be paired with any kind of sensor skin layers to function effectively as an electronic skin. While ACES detects signals like the human sensor nervous system, unlike the nerve bundles in the human skin, it is made up of a network of sensors connected via a single electrical conductor. It is also unlike existing electronic skins that have interlinked wiring systems that can make them sensitive to damage and difficult to scale up.
ACES can detect touches more than 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system. It is capable of differentiating physical contact between different sensors in less than 60 nanoseconds, even with large numbers of sensors. ACES-enabled skin can also accurately identify the shape, texture, and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds — ten times faster than the blink of an eye. This is enabled by the high fidelity and capture speed of the ACES system.
The ACES platform can also be designed to achieve high robustness to physical damage, an important property for electronic skins because they come into frequent physical contact with the environment. Unlike the current system used to interconnect sensors in existing electronic skins, all the sensors in ACES can be connected to a common electrical conductor with each sensor operating independently. This allows ACES-enabled electronic skins to continue functioning as long as there is one connection between the sensor and the conductor, making them less vulnerable to damage.
ACES has a simple wiring system and responsiveness even with increasing numbers of sensors. These key characteristics will facilitate the scale-up of intelligent electronic skins for artificial intelligence (AI) applications in robots, prosthetic devices, and other human-machine interfaces.
ACES can be easily paired with any kind of sensor skin layers; for example, those designed to sense temperature and humidity. Pairing ACES with a transparent, self-healing, and water-resistant sensor skin layer creates an electronic skin that can self-repair like human skin. This type of electronic skin can be used to develop more realistic prosthetic limbs that will help disabled individuals restore their sense of touch.
Other potential applications include developing more intelligent robots that can perform disaster recovery tasks or take over mundane operations such as packing items in warehouses.