Is robotics research a step closer to creating a synthetic version of a human’s ability to ‘feel’?
In a recent paper published in Advanced Functional Materials, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have demonstrated the use of a nonoscillating gel that can be resuscitated in a similar manner to medical cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
In the same way that human skin provides signals to the brain when there is an external pressure, pain or environmental change, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel (first developed in the 1990s) could become the ‘holy grail’ of robotics — by functioning as a sensory, artificial skin.
In the absence of any external stimulation, the gel pulsates. Under certain conditions, the gel will even ‘beat’ like a human heart.
Anna Balazs, Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and her collegues predicted that BZ gel that was not previously oscillating could be re-invigorated by external pressures, including the mechanical.
Researchers at MIT explored this further, and found that chemical oscillations could be triggered by mechanically compressing the BZ gel beyond a level of critical stress.
“Think of it like human skin, which can provide signals to the brain that something on the body is deformed or hurt,” Balazs said. “This gel has numerous far-reaching applications, such as artificial skin that could be sensory — a holy grail in robotics.”
Although the research is in early stages of development, it could become the catalyst that sparks development of new applications that use their ’senses’ to respond chemically to various scenarios.
The complexity of human responses may be a distant possibility, but in the short-term, this kind of gel can be used as a small-scale pressure. Uses could include pressure sensors for vehicles to alert owners to impact or damage.
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army.
Image credit: Jane Rahman / MIT