Robot fingers that are “real” are waterproof, bendable and self-healing

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ", but basically indistinguishable from human and android. Not only it, but there have been similar assumptions in many science fiction works: there may be robots in the future that are physically infinitely close to humans.

▲ Stills of the movie "Blade Runner", picture from: The Guardian

The development of this kind of humanoid robot has also continued over the years. For example, there are currently silicone skins made for robots, which can imitate the appearance of humans to a certain extent, but it is difficult to achieve the same delicate texture as human skin with wrinkles and so on. , and lacks skin-specific features.

But not long ago, the research team of Professor Shoji Takeuchi of the University of Tokyo developed a robotic finger covered with artificial skin. At first glance at this robot finger, one might startle and wonder, "Isn't this really a real human finger?"

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

If there are these reactions, it actually shows that its bionic degree is really high. In fact, the dermal equivalent covered on this skin model is made from living human cells (fibroblasts, keratinocytes, etc.) and extracellular matrix (ECM) hydrogels (collagen, etc.).

Robot fingers are immersed in a solution of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts. These two main components make up the connective tissue of the skin, and this mixture has a natural tendency to shrink. The fingers are like being coated with a "primer". Provides the basis for human epidermal keratinocytes.

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

This three-joint robot finger, in addition to its appearance and texture is very close to real skin, its function is also similar to real skin. For example, this robot finger is waterproof like a human finger, and the water droplets formed on the surface can be easily wiped off, which can protect the internal electric motor and other components from being affected by water.

Not only that, but it can straighten and bend like a human finger. The clicks from the motors, combined with the motion and realistic appearance, make the robot fingers look more like real ones.

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

What's more, the research team was originally inspired by the use of hydrogels for the medical treatment of deeply burned skin, so the dermal equivalents covering the robotic fingers can also "self-heal".

In the test, the researchers cut a small piece of skin from the robot's finger and covered it with a collagen sheet. The collagen sheet was able to seal the wound, and after 7 days of culture, the boundary between the transplanted acellular collagen sheet and the original dermal equivalent became blurred, and the adhesion strength of the collagen sheet to the dermal equivalent was sufficient for the repaired fingers Withstands tensile strain from repeated bending motions of robotic fingers.

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

Of course, there are still many areas to be improved in the research of this kind of robot finger in terms of lifespan and functionalization. For example, it cannot lack proper water supply from the circulatory system and local wetting due to sweat secretion. in the culture medium. Therefore, establishing perfusion channels in and below the dermis to simulate blood vessels to supply water and integrating sweat glands in the skin are important directions for future research.

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

In addition, the deterioration of electronic devices and wiring caused by such wet culture conditions should also be noted. In order to further improve the function and physical autonomy of robotic fingers, building an architecture with coexistence of perfusable artificial vascular networks and biocompatible waterproof electronics is also an important focus in the future, not only to maintain the viability of living skin, but also to be able to integrate Electronic processors, motors, sensors, wires, batteries, communication modules, etc.

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

However, the breakthrough of this research is undeniable. This demonstrates that it is possible to model skin tissue directly around the robot, allowing the skin to grow directly on the robot parts. It also gives the "artificial skin" the texture and soft texture that silicone skin does not have, as well as the appearance and functions similar to real skin, such as waterproofing, bending and stretching with joints, and even self-healing.

According to the research team's future plans, they also want to develop a more advanced version by adding sensory neurons, hair follicles, nails and sweat glands, etc., and also want to try to cover larger structures.

▲ Picture from: Shoji Takeuchi

It is worth mentioning that this study may have one more note. It is mentioned in its research purpose that some tasks of humanoid robots require a human-like appearance to improve the efficiency of information exchange with humans and arouse people's love. To mimic human appearance, it is imperative to develop humanoid covering materials with realistic human skin tones and textures.

But over time, in the face of humanoid robots, especially robots whose skin is so close to a real person, I am afraid that the "uncanny valley theory" cannot be avoided. Humans may like robots that look like humans, but can such robots really be liked?

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