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If a machine is going to pick up an object, it has to know how much energy it needs and whether the surface is slippery, for example, or complex in shape. A team of researchers from ETH Zurich has taken up this challenge: it has constructed a sensor with an elastic silicone skin underneath which small colored plastic balls are inserted. A camera is also required. When the robot touches an object, the skin is deformed and so is the pattern of the micro balls. The camera records the pattern and – with machine learning – can calculate the forces currently being applied. According to ETH Zurich, one advantage over other sensors of a similar sort is that shear forces that are applied transversely can also be determined.

A few months ago, a team from the Technical University of Munich even equipped an autonomous, human-sized robot with artificial skin over its whole surface area . The cells of the skin are also equipped with a sensor and a microprocessor and are designed to be able to measure touch, acceleration, proximity and temperature.