Skin in the game. How an Edinburgh start-up is cracking one of the biggest challenges in robotics

UK startup Touchlab is developing a low-profile tactile sensing e-skin to give robots a human touch.

Artificial Intelligence Consciousness Concept. Human-like Robot Hand 3d Illustration
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Imagine a robot working in a field delicately picking strawberries, with the dexterity and soft touch of a human. Or a robot carefully handling nuclear waste materials with no damage from high radiation levels. Or a robot that has such a sensitive sense of touch that it can be used to tend vulnerable, post-operation hospital patients. For Dr Zaki Hussein, CEO and founder of Touchlab, these are all within the realms of possibility, thanks to the development of an e-skin that can replicate human touch.

Touchlab, which has just received a £3.5m injection of cash from early-stage investor Octopus Ventures, has created an e-skin that is thinner than human skin and yet, according to Hussein, can already withstand extreme environments, such as acid and high and low temperatures. Although robot skins are not new, one of the biggest remaining challenges for robot makers was the ability to create a human-like sensitive skin that, for one, would enable a more measured grip of objects.

According to Hussein, Touchlab’s e-skin uses just four wires (each the size of a human hair) to create a customisable material capable of measuring touch, force and position. It can be wrapped around new or existing robots and even works in conjunction with human tele-operated avatars.

The idea was borne out of Hussein’s initial PhD research into electronic skin, developing deformable patches to deliver drugs or get diagnostics on patients. This led to the creation of Touchlab. Currently based at the Higgs Centre for Innovation at The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, the company plans to move to The National Robotarium, a centre for leading research and development in AI and robotics. It’s a clear indication of its future intentions, to collaborate and grow within an ecosystem of robotics start-ups and leading researchers.

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