Engineering Fellowship for Growth - Neuromorphic Printed Tactile Skin (NeuPRINTSKIN) (Ext)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Engineering

Abstract

This project is an extension of the Engineering Fellowship for Growth: Printable Tactile Skin (PRINTSKIN). PRINTSKIN focused on developing a robust ultra-flexible tactile skin, endowing state-of-the-art robotic hand with the tactile skin and validating it by using tactile information from large areas of robot hands to handle daily object with different curvatures. The tactile skin is critical for autonomy of robots and for the safe human-robot interaction need to meet societal needs such as helping elderly. The tactile feedback is critical in such tasks as the robots often use incomplete environmental model which are insufficient to deal with external changes. The touch sensing is also needed to augment other sensory modalities (e.g. vision) in robotics.

Inspired by nature, numerous works including PRINTSKIN project, have harnessed the technological advances to develop e-skin with some features mimicking human skin - particularly the contact parameters and morphological features. However, just morphology of skin or capturing few parameters that we experience as touch is not enough. To develop an effective tactile skin, there is also a need to understand the perceptual mechanism and to find the ways to extract the information from large tactile data (especially in the case of large area tactile skin). Research suggests that distributed computing takes place in the biological tactile sensory system. For example, the ensemble of tactile data from peripheral neurons is considered to indicate both the contact force and its direction. This means raw tactile data is not sent to brain and that some distributed computing takes place in our skin. This is in sharp contrast with current e-skin approaches which transmit the as acquired tactile data to higher perceptual levels. The research proposed here will break this trend by introducing neuron like processing and bring a step change in the tactile sensing research by developing the first neuromorphic tactile skin or the brainy skin.

A new neural layer, developed using the printed silicon nanowire methodology developed in PRINSKIN, will be integrated under the e-skin to enable fast, energy efficient and distributed tactile data processing. This groundbreaking research will lead to the first hardware implementation of neuromorphic tactile skin. Innovative schematic, with novel neural nanowire field effect transistors and memory devices as building blocks, will be used to develop the neurons which will eventually lead to the neural layer. The advanced tactile skin will be benchmarked against available semi-rigid skins and the skin developed through PRINTSKIN. The skin will be validated on at least three different robotic hands (Shadow Hand, i-Limb, and custom 3D printed hand) used for dexterous manipulation and prosthetics. By adding neural layer underneath the current tactile skin, this extension project will add significant new perspective to the fellowship achievements and trigger transformations in strategic areas such as robotics, prosthetics, neurotechnology, wearable systems, next-generation computing and flexible and printable electronics.

Planned Impact

neuPRINTSKIN will develop critical neuromorphic tactile skin with neural data process capability to enable future robots to engage in highly interactive tasks such as caring for the elderly. The feedback from tactile skin will shape up the way society interacts with robotic devices as robots will be able to gather rich contact information and think, act, and react humanly. The near to long-term impact of this multidisciplinary research will be seen in academia, public sector, industry, social enterprises, public, schools and more.

In near-term the tactile skin will result in new research foci in robotics allowing multiple contact points to be exploited to carry out manipulation tasks in cluttered environments. With neuromorphic distributed processing capability of skin, it will be possible to investigate how tactile data is processed by humans. Tactile skin will enable neuroscientists to understand the functioning of receptors in human skin. The impact of proposed research will also be seen in bioelectronics, for example, together with ultra-thin bendable electronics implanted in the brain, the tactile skin will enable in long-term the neural control of artificial limbs and new biomimetic technologies. Equipped with tactile skin the robots will be safe interactive learning tools to stimulate the imagination of children. For example, due to lack of emotions in robots, autistic children find them less threatening than their teachers and easier to engage with. Other potential near to mid-term application of could be industrial task such as fruit or object sorting, where the bio-mimicking neural networks in the skin of robotic hands could classify and held objects based on the physical and optical parameters from special optical sensors from tactile e-skin. I believe in the long-term, the ultra-flexible tactile skin will bestow sensory feeling to prosthetic limbs and improve lives of amputees. We will see quick benefits of tactile skin in areas such as teleoperation where tactile feedback enables extension of feelings. As per latest Gartner report, the neuromorphic hardware will have major impact on future computing in mid-to-long term.

neuPRINTSKIN will bring about profound impact through new printing methodology for neural and electronic layers and the 3D integration of flexible electronics. The paradigm of electronics manufacturing and prototyping will change with small-scale manufacturing, capable of printing high-performance circuits straight from the computer, replacing the large manufacturing centres based overseas. The cost reduction because of printing will have enormous impact on schemes such as using barcodes to track objects in supermarkets or disposable sensors for health and environment monitoring. As an example, the possibility to develop identity tags with performance at par with Si and cost at par with existing barcodes will drive replacement of some 15 trillion barcodes in existence today and boost new areas such as internet of things. The technology affordability could lead to changes in policies e.g. taxation system of UK could be based on real-time data collected from consumed products. With reduced electronic waste, printing methods are also environment friendly.

There is significant gain in printing of high-performance devices, as many new unforeseen applications which will almost inevitably - by ever-demanding end-user - supersede the solid-state IC, just as the IC replaced the discrete circuit board electronics. These include intelligent packaging, conformal electronics (e.g. in automotive applications), wearable electronics, smart windows including antenna for wireless communications, medical sensors and inorganic thin film solar cells. There is great potential in the UK to establish companies based on such end products. Summarizing, neuPRINTSKIN has the potential to emulate yet another revolution in the microelectronics and will trigger transformations robotics and similar areas.

Publications

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