Robots will have skin, thanks to artificial hair. How it works

A Harbin Institute of Technology research has created a sensor with electrically charged hairs that amplify the senses of robots as if they had skin

In robotic developments, there is one aspect that intrigues researchers more than others: human skin. Skin makes us able to feel breeze, humidity, heat and more. It's one of the most complex sensors to reproduce. Yet at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, they seem to have found a way to do just that.

Today's robots can do very complex tasks and can reproduce most human movements. The skin, however, is still an undiscovered aspect. To imitate our skin, Chinese researchers, led by scientist Lui Xiaodong, have decided to replicate the hair that covers 95% of our body. It is hair, in fact, that transmits sensory information to the nerves of the skin. Instead of hair, however, the researchers used tiny wires only 30 micrometers thick, more or less like human hair. And they inserted them into the silicone that lines the robots.

How they work

The hairs the scientists recreated don't behave like human hair, but they respond to changes in the magnetic field when pushed out of their original position. The strands have a small electrical charge running through them, thus creating a magnetic field. If they move from their original position, the field changes. This system was able to make the robot detect both contact with an eleven-pound object and the passage of a fly. It won't be exactly like feeling the breeze but, considering that it's a robot, almost. Contrary to what you might think, the wires were not made from carbon nanotubes but are glass wires coated with a conductive cobalt alloy. The wires are so strong and flexible that they can be tied in knots without breaking. The group of researchers also said that they are very durable and cheap, so they can also be useful in real applications.

What will they be used for

In the document presenting the project emerges the desire to continue the study with the aim of making medical prostheses and health equipment. the group has also experimented with the connection of sensor-wires to a robot arm, but it is not yet clear what developments the experiment will have in the immediate future. The current size will also be modified; the sensor is currently two inches in size.