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Smiles better: Humanoid robot skin is becoming more realistic

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Scientists from the University of Tokyo in Japan and Harvard University in the US have worked together on a study showing how synthetic skin could be better attached to robots.

The researchers said that their findings, based on attaching fake skin to surfaces using ‘V’-shaped hole structures they called ‘anchors’, could benefit both the robotics and skin cosmetics industries.

Of course, their potential use for making more realistic sex robots must be considered too.

The scientists published their study, titled Perforation-type Anchors Inspired by Skin Ligament For Robotic Face Covered With Living Skin, in the Cell Reports Physical Science journal.

The study addressed the challenges of attaching synthetic skin to robots effectively, which include ensuring that fake skin is firmly attached to the robot body, but also that it can move with the body when required.

The scientists achieved this by placing ‘V’-shaped holes in the robot’s structure surface, then applying a skin-forming, cell-laden gel over and into these hole structures. Water-based plasma treatment was used to help the gel penetrate into the ‘V’-shaped hole structure ‘anchors’.

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Skin 2

They found that the more densely they used the anchor structures, which were inspired by human ligaments, the more rigidly the synthetic skin held to the robot structure.

To demonstrate how the synthetic skin could still move flexibly on a robot using this method – and perhaps to raise the chances of a viral moment – the researchers created a fake skin ‘face’ that could move to form a smile.

The scientists said that human ligaments, “predominantly composed of collagen and elastin, are diminutive connecting tissues that anchor the skin to the underlying tissues, enabling fluid facial expressions and bodily motions.”

“By mimicking this structure, our method offers a less restrictive placement by eliminating the drawbacks of the conventional protrusion anchors [previously used in robot construction] and maintaining the robot’s aesthetic integrity,” they added.

Maintaining a robot’s aesthetic integrity could be particularly important if a humanoid robot is required to regularly engage in rigorous repetitive movements, or to move flexibly when touched. Or, perhaps, if it needs to wave its dinkle around in a helicopter motion.

The researchers behind the new study said that anchor density should be carefully planned, depending on which part of a robot’s body synthetic skin is being placed on. For example, areas such as hands that require frequent movement should have higher anchor density. Areas that have to frequently “deform”, such as stomach areas, should have lower anchor densities.

Skin

They said that “tailoring the anchor arrangement to the characteristics of the coverage area is crucial… this approach can serve as a guideline for anchor placement in robotic design.”

The researchers also suggested that with self-repairing synthetic skin already being developed by scientists, self-repairing fake skin combined with this anchor technology could be a powerful combination for robot use.

“In unpredictable environments, minor scratches and damages that robot skin inevitably incurs can escalate into serious impairments if left unattended,” they said. “Therefore, the capacity for self-repair becomes a critical feature for humanoid robots.”

Recently it was revealed that Edinburgh-based robotics company Touchlab was working on robot “skin” that could be wrapped around any surface, and could allow robots to “feel texture, and sense pain like a human would”.

Meanwhile, Japanese researchers recently developed a self-healing form of ‘living’ skin, that they claimed could potentially usher in an era of robots made from both artificial and synthetic material.

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