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A robot gets sensitive skin

"The robot has moved a step closer to humanity," concludes a news release put out today by a German research institute on the development of a robotic skin.

The "skin" consists of 2-inch square hexagonal plates packed with sensors for things like touch, acceleration and temperature that are joined together in a honeycomb-like configuration.


"We try to pack many different sensory modalities into the smallest of spaces," said Philip Mettendorfer, who is developing the skin at the Technical University of Munich, in the news release. "In addition, it is easy to expand the circuit boards to later include other sensors, for example, pressure."

The technology, according to the researchers, will provide robots with tactile information to complement their camera eyes, infrared scanners and gripping hands. Tap it on the back, in the dark, and it will know you're there.

In the video above, researchers test the sensors on a robotic arm by doing things such as brushing it with a piece of tissue paper and touching it with a warm hand to show how the robot quickly jerks away. In another test, the accelerometer allows it to keep a cup on a tray steady as the arm is moved around.

For now, the skin consists of just 15 sensors, though the researchers plan to create a prototype completely draped in the skin-line sensors that can interact with its environment.

The research effort, described in June issue of IEEE Transactions on Robotics, joins other quests around the world for robotic skin.

Ali Javey's group at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, recently reported on a new material for e-skin that can detect a range of pressures. This could, for example, allow a robot to distinguish between an egg and a frying pan and adjust its grip accordingly.

NASA scientists reported development of a skin that would give robots a sense of touch as it moved about its environment. Similar to Mettendorfer's concept, this would help robots react, for example, when they bump into an object.

The goal for robotic skin experts doesn't stop at the current sensory accomplishments. "These machines will someday be able to incorporate our fundamental neurobiological capabilities and form a self-impression," according to the Technical University of Munich.

More on robot sensory abilities:


John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).