Illustration Corinna Heumann / Text Susanne Gold
A hand that delicately strokes the soft material of a piece of velvet, feels the landing of a butterfly or tenderly grips the hand of another: Feeling – reserved for humans? Our human sense of touch allows us to perceive the most delicate touches. But it is no longer the privilege of a natural life form.
Tactile sensor technology – what is it?
For some time now, researchers have been working on simulating the human sense of touch in sensor systems. These so-called “tactile sensors” enable machines to perceive touch. The use of such sensor systems opens up numerous possibilities for human-machine interaction. It is a large market that is in demand wherever humans have to interact with machines.
The sensitive machine.
The focus is particularly on safety-critical applications – in other words, all those mechanical tasks in which the reliability and monitoring of the system plays a decisive role. Namely where not a single small mistake must be made in order to guarantee human safety. Here a machine must be able to deal gently with people – to “feel” them. On the other hand, it would put them at risk by making movements that are too rough. In many production lines where robots work together with humans, these sensors therefore already play a decisive role.
Thanks to the possibility of sensitive gripping, tactile sensors are already in demand in many industries and areas.
No wonder that the use of tactile sensors in medical technology plays a very special and important role. After all, it’s not only a matter of patient safety, but also of healing. Robot applications with tactile sensors offer medical technology a particularly wide range of possible applications. Medical care today faces many challenges. On the one hand, it should become cheaper and on the other hand, it should be of ever better quality. For this reason, the new technologies carry no less than the promise of individual and at the same time more efficient medical care, especially for medicine and healing.
A new species: fusion of humans and intelligent machines?
What was once science fiction is now becoming increasingly probable. Thanks to artificial intelligence, we can already test our performance and our ideas faster and better. This is also making itself felt in the field of medicine. Our technologies are advancing so rapidly that people can use their limbs again, control them via brain implants and walk thanks to exoskeletons. The symbiosis of computer and human being has already begun.
The technology of our time is much more than just our tools: it is becoming part of who we are.
Researchers and physicians dream of completely new medical treatment options using modern technology: whether it is a matter of restoring hearing to deaf people, sight to the blind, or mobility to paralyzed or amputated people – all this can be made possible with modern medical technology. Ahmed Alfadhel a PhD graduate from KAUST University in Saudi Arabia is one of the researchers with the dream of being able to cure the sick.
Technology inspired by nature: Bionics!
To this end, Alfadhel has delivered a groundbreaking innovation in the field of medical care – an artificial skin that can perceive touches as sensitive as human skin.
Skin 2.0: E-skin!
Alfadhel developed this artificial skin, which can register not only pressure but also very delicate sensations such as the landing of a fly or the breath of a breath. In designing the skin, the researcher was inspired by nature. Hair-like structures with tactile magnetic sensors attached to their ends perceive the finest of touches. The scientist has imitated the hairs of the artificial skin using nanowires, which he embedded in a superelastic polymer that simulates the skin. Like their natural counterpart, the hair, these nanowires bend with every touch and generate an electrical impulse when they bend. By this bending of the nano-hair on the artificial skin – analogous to the human neurons – a sensor is electrically stimulated, which is also incorporated into the polymer.
First test results successful.
Initial experiments on tactile sensors in prostheses have already been carried out at John Hopkins University in the USA. For this purpose, a man who has a hand prosthesis was fitted with a simple pressure sensor on one of the fingers of the prosthesis and connected to a chip in his brain. This made it possible that when pressure was applied to the finger of the prosthesis, the subject’s brain was stimulated. The ambitious researcher Alfadhel, who is now chief technologist in a semi-state enterprise in Saudi Arabia, wants to further develop and integrate this technology so that a test person with a prosthesis would also be able to feel the breath of a breath or the landing of a fly again.
He wants to develop it into a high-performance skin that sends numerous sensory data directly to the wearer’s brain. Such a technology, it is obvious, could help all people who have lost their sense of touch due to illness or accident. These people could thus regain their sense of touch. No wonder he describes himself as a person who wants to build bridges between technology and industry.
With tactile sensors, the machines of tomorrow will become increasingly sensitive and – like their role model, man – will be able to feel their environment.
About the author: Founder and owner of the future and science blog “Utopiensammlerin”. The futurologist and science journalist is a keynote speaker for a new understanding of the human work force and a successful human-machine cooperation. Contact her? Either by mail or simply follow her on LinkedIn.