Scots business and academia teaming up to 'transform' prosthetics and robotic limbs

Business and academia in Scotland are teaming up for a new initiative that those involved say could “transform” prosthetics and robotic limbs by developing advanced sensors.

The research project is being led by the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), hi-tech material supplier Integrated Graphene (which makes 3D graphene foam), and supported by the Scottish Research Partnership in Engineering (SRPe) and National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS) industry doctorate programme in advanced manufacturing.

The collaboration aims to develop sensors that provide enhanced capabilities to robots, helping improve their dexterity and motor skills, through the use of accurate pressure sensors that provide haptic feedback (which harnesses the sense of touch to communicate with the user) and distributed touch.

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Professor Des Gibson, director of the Institute of Thin Films, Sensors and Imaging at UWS, and project principal investigator, said: “Over recent years, the advancements in the robotics industry have been remarkable. However, due to a lack of sensory capabilities, robotic systems often fail to execute certain tasks easily. For robots to reach their full potential, accurate pressure sensors, capable of providing greater tactile ability, are required.

“Our collaboration with Integrated Graphene has led to the development of advanced pressure sensor technology, which could help transform robotic systems.”

The sensors are made from 3D graphene foam, which offers unique capabilities when put under mechanical stress, and when the material is put under pressure it dynamically changes its electric resistance, easily detecting and adapting to the range of pressure required, from light to heavy.

Marco Caffio, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Stirling-based Integrated Graphene, said: “Gii, our novel 3D graphene foam, has the capability to mimic the sensitivity and feedback of human touch, which could have a transformative impact on how robotics can be used for a whole range of real-world applications from surgery to precision manufacturing.

The project aims to develop sensors that provide enhanced capabilities to robots, helping improve their dexterity and motor skills. Picture: contributed.

“We know the unique property of Gii makes it suitable for use in other applications like disease diagnostics and energy storage, so we’re always very excited to be able to demonstrate its flexibility in projects like this one.”

Key

Also commenting was Dr Carlos Garcia Nunez, of the School of Computing Engineering and Physical Sciences at UWS, who said the use of pressure sensors in robotics and wearable electronics is key to provide an information input system, or to give robotic systems human-like motor skills.

He added: "An advanced material like 3D graphene foam offers excellent potential for use in such applications, due to its outstanding electrical, mechanical and chemical properties. Our work shines a light on the significant potential for this technology to revolutionise the robotics industry with dynamic pressure sensors.”

Claire Ordoyno, interim director of SRPe, said: “These collaborative PhD projects not only enhance the Scottish engineering research landscape, but produce innovation-focused, industry-ready PhD graduates to feed the talent pipeline.”

The next stage of the project will look to boost sensitivity of the sensors, before developing for wider use in robotic systems.

Other Scottish firms to have been active in similar activity include artificial limb maker Touch Bionics, which was sold in 2016 by its shareholders including investment syndicate Archangels to Icelandic firm Ossur for £27.5 million.

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