VANCOUVER—Robots can walk, dance and open doors, but engineers are still trying to design flexible sensors that would allow humanoids to pass the ultimate test — holding an egg without cracking it. 

Engineers at Dr. John Madden’s research group at the University of British Columbia are developing artificial-skin technology that could be the first to achieve this feat.

The artificial skin is about two millimetres thick and feels similar to the rubbery material of Halloween masks, said Mirza Sarwar, a PhD candidate at UBC’s electrical and computer engineering department. The “skin” itself acts as a sensor, and Sarwar’s version sets itself apart because it is precise enough to detect when an object is slipping.

“This is something that has been missing in robot skin — the ability to detect sheer force,” he said.

That nuanced ability to gently hold a paper cup without crumpling it comes naturally to humans, but engineers have yet to perfect the hardware needed for robots to do the same thing.

Sarwar says he is very close. He and his team have tested the technology on the palm of a humanoid robot so far and will move on to fingers next.

The next step after that would be to transform the prototype into something that can be manufactured on a mass scale. On Sarwar’s team, exploring different manufacturing options for the artificial skin is 20-year old Roshan Mishra’s job.

The Mitacs Globalink intern from Kolkata, India, is working with the UBC team this summer and believes 3D printing may be the optimal way to mass-produce the technology.

“These are printing technologies, which are used to commercially make or produce sensors on a large scale,” said Mishra, an engineering undergraduate student at Jadavpur University.

Mitacs Globalink brings more than 700 students from around the world to Canada for paid internships every year. The goal is to convince some of them to either stay or come back later in their careers, said Alejandro Adem, CEO and Science Director at the program.

As for Sarwar, he is finishing up his PhD at UBC this summer and aims to create a startup company for artificial-skin technology one day.

A feasible artificial-skin product that robot engineers around the world can use is still years away but Sarwar says the possibilities for its application are endless.

For instance, strawberry picking can become automated one day — robots will be able to grip the berry firmly enough to pick it but not too firmly that they squish it, he explained. The technology could also be used for prosthetics to enhance amputees’ lives.

For now, Sarwar and his team are focused on the egg test.

“In our field, all researchers are trying to make a robot hand that can pick up an egg,” he said. “When that happens, we’ll feel we have enough to show investors and potentially have a startup.”

By: Wanyee Lee