A Snake-Inspired Approach Helps Robots Come to Their Senses

Taking a cue from snakes, a new "skin" is helping robots sense warmth of their surroundings.


Get ready for an advance that's destined to make robots even more human-like. 

A research team in Switzerland has developed a material that acts like a "skin" of sorts for robots, aiding detection of temperature. Like many technological advances, the robot skin takes its cue from Mother Nature, relying on a process similar to how a snake identifies prey due to changes in ion currents that signal radiant heat.

To make the robot skin, a pectin solution is mixed with calcium chloride and then dehydrated. This film can then be combined with artificial intelligence capabilities to give the humanoid robot sensory feedback needed to create a picture of its environment and surroundings. Researchers hope that with these heat-sensing features, robots can be used to better learn the lay of the land, seamlessly navigate crowded areas or even facilitate the discovery of humans during search and rescue operations.

When revealing the new technology, the research team demonstrated the skin's effectiveness using a teddy bear. As noted in an article on Futurism.com, the toy was microwaved to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees F—the body temp of a human) and the skin was able to detect it from as far away as one meter. Even better, the skin detected temperature changes as small as 10 millikelvin, which is twice as sensitive as human skin. 

On one hand, I’d argue that a temperature-sensitive skin for robots is a good thing, making them far more useful and effective for automation. On the other hand, this robot thing could get pretty creepy, pretty fast.

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