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University Developing Smart Skin, Fabrics for Robots

Dan Popa (University of Texas, Arlington)

Dan Popa (University of Texas, Arlington)

Engineers at University of Texas in Arlington are developing smart skin and fabrics that can help robotic devices, such as prosthetics, learn about their environments and react accordingly. The four-year, $1.35 million project is funded by National Science Foundation under the National Robotics Initiative.

The research is led by engineering professor Dan Popa (pictured left), director of Arlington’s Next Gen Systems group, and aims to build material that functions like human skin to give robots a sense of touch that devices can learn in a manner similar to humans. The studies conducted under this project seek to answer fundamental design questions about sensors on robotic skins and to find their optimal placement in assistive devices.

A key objective is to teach robotic devices the most efficient way to use skin sensors, and measure the impact of this assistive technology on humans. The research expects to lead to practical near-term applications of robotic skin, especially for home assistance, medical rehabilitation, and prosthetics.

“Our goal is to make robots and robotic technology more human-like and more human-friendly,” says Popa. “Robotic devices need to be safe and better able to detect human intent.” Popa’s team will include researchers from Arlington’s Nanotechnology Research and Education Center and the University of North Texas Health Science Center in nearby Fort Worth.

Much of research is expected take place at the UT Arlington Research Institute in Fort Worth, the university’s center for commercialization of technology and advanced manufacturing. Two Dallas-Fort Worth area companies — Hanson Robotics and Advanced Arm Dynamics — are taking part in the project.

The National Robotics Initiative supports the science and engineering of devices that operate cooperatively with people and enhance individual human capabilities, performance, and safety. The initiative emphasizes what are called co-robotic systems that co-exist in close proximity to humans in the pursuit of all kinds of tasks, from mundane to dangerous, precise, or expensive. In addition to National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and NASA are taking part in the National Robotics Initiative.

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