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

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.

So, where does Hussein see the application of his e-skin?

“This year, we're starting to push into a hospital with a robot equipped with our electronic skin,” says Hussein. “It is going to be a teller operated robot, controlled by a human and the human will be able to sort of feel what the robot feels in real time, throughout their entire body. Including the fingertips in the hands as well as the rest of the body. So, if you touch the robot on the side of the arm, that's what the user will feel.”

Hussein adds that this also has huge benefits for robots working around humans, as they would be able to feel bumps and react accordingly. However, the real focus is on using the technology to help healthcare professionals continue to do their job while reducing the potential for HAIs.

“This kind of robot has never been done anywhere in the world,” says Hussein, “so we have very big ambitions to bring European, shall we say, tech and expertise to the forefront of the world.”

And yet, despite the obvious application in healthcare, it is in other areas where the company is seeing greater interest at the moment.

“I was surprised that there were issues around grasping grocery items, especially delicate items, such as ripe avocadoes or bananas,” says Hussein, adding that “one of the big missing links was the sense of pressure.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK online grocery firm Ocado counts as an early client of Touchlab. Ocado is a leading advocate of automated warehousing – ‘The Hive’ in Andover in the UK is still considered one of the best examples of automated grocery warehousing – and would no doubt benefit from a touch sensitive picking arm.

“We're also looking more futuristically towards other areas, such as nuclear decommissioning,” says Hussein. “That's been a huge environmental project. We can apply the skin on top of robots that can then work in settings where humans wouldn't be able to withstand those radiation dosages. That means that we can start to actually solve the problem of nuclear waste storage and management.”

The blind robot problem

Mechanically, it’s a big challenge but as Hussein himself admits, they’ve already jumped so many hurdles to get where they are today that collectively, the growing Touchlab team has a relatively fearless attitude to problem solving.

“We're trying to imitate four of the mechanic receptors in human skin and we're trying to make a holistic robot system that can handle all of that, that data and information and I think, maybe I underappreciated the task when I started,” says Hussein. “It’s a very complex process. It involves the skin itself, which has these four mechanical receptors, some of them are responsible for sensing vibration, some of them are responsible for sensing pain, some for sensing very light touch, or just extremely low pressures and some, high pressures.”

He calls it the blind robot problem. If a robot, like a person, had no sight, how would it use the other senses to navigate a room? Building a huge database of objects that can be identified through touch alone is time-consuming and something the team is currently working on. It’s indicative of the mindset, one that many in the robotics field have to have to move the industry forward.

Interestingly, Touchlab has recently won through to the final of the global Avatar XPRIZE competition, which is offering a $10m prize for the best system that can transport human presence to a remote location in real time. It’s a great showcase for the technology and the business against some of the leading robotics nations in the world and you get the sense that they are not fazed by it. If anything, it’s just more proving of the pudding, so to speak.

Ultimately, for Hussein and his team, it’s about pushing boundaries and not accepting the status quo. This comes through in Hussein’s assessment of the e-skin challenge, which to date has seen many people try and fail.

“So, I worked in nanotechnology and then brought expertise from that into robotics,” says Hussein. “I mean roboticists have no idea how to build the skin. Frankly, they tend to build very simple versions, you know, using very common materials, but we're using state of the art quantum tunnelling-based nanomaterials. I've been in the lab chemically formulating some of them and then I found the right supplier, tested two different fabrication processes for cost effectiveness and durability and a whole bunch of other things. All of that before we got to the point where we could make something that's highly reliable and thinner than human skin too.”