Indian-origin engineer’s work gives robots, near-human ‘skin’ with sense of touch, pain

04th December 2023
Indian-origin engineer’s work gives robots,  near-human ‘skin’  with sense of touch, pain
Professor Ravinder Dahiya. Photo by Matthew Modoono_ Northeastern University. Inset: Electronic skin placed on an operator’s arm (left) and incorporated in the fingers of a robot.

After a decade in Scotland, developing electronic skin,  Prof Ravinder Dahiya  moves to  Northeastern University, in the US where his new project will give robots, near-human physical qualities.

By Anand Parthasarathy
December 4, 2023: India-born Professor Ravinder Dahiya of  Northeastern University’s  College of Engineering in Boston ( Massachusetts, USA) ,  a  renowned  expert on electronic skin, is leading a project that   is expected to help create a new generation of smart  but soft robots with human-like physical abilities.
His work  is expected to give robots  the versatility  and tactile ( touch sensation) ability of  humans  by  enabling electronic skin used in robots to expand and contract similar to the way human skin does.
Prof.Dahiya was recently granted a National Science Foundation grant of a $230,000 for a project  to develop “Flexible and compressible e-Skin integrated with soft magnetic coil based ultra-thin actuator and touch sensor for robotics applications.”
Says the project statement: “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 fragile objects). Likewise, skin on surgical tools can allow clinicians to remotely feel the body parts to enable new research directions in digital health.
Prof  Dahiya is an alumnus of IIT Delhi where he obtained his M.Tech degree in 2001. He gained his PhD in Humanoid Technology  from the Italian Institute  of Technology and the University of Genoa in Italy in 2008.
Prior to joining Northwestern University earlier this year, Dahiya was for almost a decade from 2013, with the University of Glasgow, Scotland (UK) as Professor of Electronics and Nanoengineering at the James Watt School of Engineering. There, he led the work  to develop electronic skin which displayed the sense of touch and could feel sensations like pain. While helping to create a robot with human-like sensitivity, it also helped provide amputees, with prosthetics -- artificial arms or legs -- with some semblance of the feeling of touch that they lost
However,  e-Skin variants  till now  neglected the fact that natural skin has receptors or 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
What was needed was a seamless coupling between the receptors (sensors) and muscles (actuators)
Soft, compressible-skin
To address this longstanding  and critical shortcoming in all  e-Skin research,  Dahiya’s new project will   work to try and create a soft and compressible e-Skin that will have a touch sensor integrated with soft electromagnetic coil-based flexible ultra-thin actuator
In a communication to this correspondent today, Prof Dahiya confirms: “ The recently funded project extends the e-skin work. The new development here is  related to integrated sensors and actuator (as a single device). Normally they are separate devices.
Dahiya  adds  “The actuator is the part that will allow us to expand and contract the skin. That would be the new component.”
Over  a period of two years, Dahiya and his team of about 20 made up of both graduate and postdoctoral students, will develop the concept device
More to skin than feelin
Speaking to  Cesareo Contreras of Northeastern Global News, Dahiya  cautions that researchers like himself have been working on developing electronic skin for robots for almost a decade. Through their work, they developed touch sensors that enabled the skin to have a response to stimuli. “But we noted that skin is not just about feeling. It’s also about what we call ‘haptic interaction,’ which essentially means the information goes from point of contact to the brain and then back to the point of contact.
 “That’s how we can explore different types of objects. That’s where the features of compressibility of skin or expansion of skin become quite important.”
He adds that the potential applications are vast: In warehouses, for example, it could enhance robots’ ability to handle items of varying densities, shapes and weights, he notes. The technology could also be used in rehabilitation settings, assisting those learning to regain function in their extremities and those who have lost limbs
“For amputees, you want to provide them with the extra flexibility to handle objects. It’s all about moving those motors that are not always precise, so the extension of the skin will fill in the gap and will allow them to explore objects in a much better way.”
Last  year in June, Prof Dahiya, made headlines after  his group published results of its e-skin breakthrough in  the journal  Science Robotics.  (‘Printed Synaptic Transistors based Electronic Skin for Robots to Feel and Learn’. June 1, 2022; Vol. 7. Issue 67)|
Now it looks like his  next project will help  create electronic skin that is even   more like the real – human- thing. And we may not have to wait too long.
In an emailed communication  he says:" Hopefully sometime next year we will be able to report some exciting outcome."

This article has appeared in NewIndiaAbroad