Remember the robotic prosthetic arm the Rebel fleet replaced Luke Skywalker’s hand with after Darth Vader severed it in an epic lightsaber duel in The Empire Strikes Back? Of course you do—and so do scientists.
Luke’s cybernetic replacement limb was pretty badass, but not exactly replicable in the medical world at the time, or even now. But a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore are hoping to change that with a new kind of artificial nervous system. Think of it as electronic “skin.”
Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES) uses a network of sensors connected through a single electrical conductor. This is in contrast to existing electronic skins, which use interlinked wire networks that are prone to failure if a single point is damaged.
“Equipping intelligent human-like androids and prosthetics with electronic skins—a large array of sensors spatially distributed and capable of rapid somatosensory perception—will enable them to work collaboratively and naturally with humans to manipulate objects in unstructured living environments,” the authors note in their paper, which appears in the journal Science Robotics.
It sounds crazy, but the electronic skin is actually so efficient that it can detect touches 1,000 times faster than the human nervous system. In just 60 nanoseconds, the ACES system can differentiate between 20 to 30 different textures, representing the fastest achievement yet for artificial skin.
Within 10 milliseconds, the electronic skin can identify the texture, hardness, and shape of an object. ACES can even read Braille letters with a striking 90 percent accuracy.
That’s because the ACES system uses a simple wiring scheme that enables fast response times, even with a vast number of sensors attached to the “skin.” Altogether, it’s composed of about 100 sensors and is only approximately 0.16 square inches in size, but the scientists say the electronic skin is well-positioned to scale up.
“Scalability is a critical consideration as big pieces of high performing electronic skins are required to cover the relatively large surface areas of robots and prosthetic devices,” Benjamin Tee, the research team leader, said in a prepared statement. He recently confirmed with Reuters that his team’s electronic skin was indeed partly inspired Star Wars.
Interestingly, the National University of Singapore scientists weren’t the first group of academics to use Star Wars as a starting point for prosthetics research. Last year, the University of Utah teamed up with a New Hampshire-based startup called Mobius Bionics to develop their own artificial limb.
They of course called it the LUKE Arm prototype, which is short for Life Under Kinetic Evolution. It helps return function and feeling to its users through peripheral nerve stimulation, which requires an aspirin-sized implant to deliver sensory information and feedback.
Moving forward, the Singapore team wants to test out its electronic skin for other use cases, such as disaster recovery tasks or packing items in warehouses. In their next phase of research, they’re looking to apply the skin to different kinds of advanced robots.
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