When you meet your robot overlord, it may be wearing super-intelligent skin designed by a Stanford researcher–a solar-powered, super-sensitive, chemical-sampling covering that makes your meatbag covering look pathetic.
Zhenan Bao is behind the advances, and the recent development centers on a stretchable solar cell system that can expand and shrink along two different axes, making it perfect for incorporation into artificial skin for robots, human prosthetic limbs, or even clothing.
Bao’s earlier successes with artificial skin have resulted in a highly flexible and durable material, which is part of a flexible organic-chemistry transistor, built on a thin polymer layer. When the skin is subjected to pressure, the current flowing through the transistors is modified as tiny pyramid shapes molded into the polymer layer compress, resulting in a super-sensitive transducer that can apparently detect the pressure from a house-fly’s feet. By modifying the transistor with a biological coating, it’s even been possible to make the “super skin,” as Bao calls it, detect the presence of particular chemicals or biological molecules.
The latest advance has seen Bao adding a corrugated microstructure organic solar cell layer into the skin. The clever folding in this layer allows it to be stretched along two axes…by up to 30% beyond its original length. This lets her coat pretty much any human-like joint with the skin and still have it collect enough solar power to run its sensor array, even when the skin is stretched and distorted over complex joints like elbows. Cleverly, the flexible solar array is connected into a circuit via a liquid metal electrode, which conforms to the particular shape of the solar cell at any particular moment.
The new super-skin will give future android robots–which are coming to our homes and workplaces sooner than you may think–the ability to gather power from the sun at all times, have human-like touch sensitivity (which is vital if they’re to be integrated into our lifestyles), and to have super-human chemical senses that make them very useful workplace assistants. If you’re not thinking of I-Robot now, then you should be… But it’s also possible that Bao’s super-skin could find uses in advanced robotic prosthetic limbs–adding back sensation (if there’s a way to wire the skin’s sense powers to nerves the way nerves are wired into controlling smart-limbs), and the solar-power skills reduce reliance on bulky battery technology. Variations on the skin could coat cars or military vehicles, and even soldier’s uniforms could act as both bio-sensors and solar power generators.