Researchers from Uppsala University and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have developed a groundbreaking robotic hand that can sense touch like a human. This innovation promises significant advancements in tactile prosthetics and robotics.

The robotic hand was created through a collaboration between Uppsala University’s Signals and Systems Division and the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, Division of Neurogeriatrics at Karolinska Institutet. The team leveraged data processing and machine learning to develop the system.

“Our system can determine what type of object it encounters as fast as a blindfolded person, just by feeling it and deciding whether it is a tennis ball or an apple, for example,” explains Zhibin Zhang, docent at the Department of Electrical Engineering at Uppsala University.

Inspired by neuroscience, the artificial tactile system mimics the human nervous system’s reaction to touch using electrical pulses to process dynamic tactile information. “With this technology, a prosthetic hand would feel like part of the wearer’s body,” Zhang adds.

The prosthetic consists of three main components: an electronic skin (e-skin) with sensors to detect touch pressure, a set of artificial neurons that convert analog touch signals into electrical pulses, and a processor that identifies objects. In their tests, the system successfully identified 22 different objects and 16 different surfaces.

“We’re also looking into developing the system so it can feel pain and heat as well. It should also be able to feel what material the hand is touching, for example, whether it is wood or metal,” says Assistant Professor Libo Chen, who led the study.

The researchers discovered that providing tactile feedback makes interactions between humans and robots or prosthetic hands safer and more natural. This allows prostheses to handle objects with human-like dexterity. “The skin contains millions of receptors. Current e-skin technology cannot deliver enough receptors, but this technology makes it possible, so we would like to produce artificial skin for a whole robot,” says Chen.

The technology has potential medical applications, such as monitoring movement dysfunctions caused by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases or aiding patients in recovering lost functionality after a stroke. “The technology can be further developed to tell if a patient is about to fall. This information can then be used to either stimulate a muscle externally to prevent the fall or prompt an assistive device to take over and prevent it,” Zhang notes.

Funding for this research came from various sources, including the European Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, the eSSENCE Research Programme, AI4Research at Uppsala University, the Margaretha af Ugglas Foundation, and the National Academic Infrastructure for Supercomputing in Sweden at UPPMAX.

By Impact Lab