British scientists have reportedly developed a 3D-printed fingertip that makes use of artificial nerve signals to provide its user a sense of touch that is similar to that of real human skin.
The new gadget can revolutionize the field of soft robotics and prosthetics by effectively simulating the way nerve endings can identify fine details.
The findings of the study have been published in two papers in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface
Prof Nathan Lepora, University of Bristol, stated that the sense of touch is produced by complex structures present inside human skin.
To recreate the complicated structures, a mesh of pin-like bumps termed papillae were 3D-printed which combines both soft and hard materials found in biology.
Prof Lepora, based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, stated that their 3D-printed tactile fingertip is capable of producing artificial nerve signals that are similar to recordings of real, tactile neurons.
He further explained that human nerves transmit signals, called mechanoreceptors, from various nerve endings, which signal the pressure and shape of the contact.
During the research, the team tested its 3D-printed fingertip by feeling the same ridged shapes and found a significantly close match to the neural data.
The professor added that the move is an exciting development for the soft robotics sector, as being able to 3D-print tactile skin will aid in the creation of more dexterous robots and substantially improve the performance of prosthetic hands by adding an in-built sense of touch to them.
However, even though the signals produced by human nerves and the artificial fingertip had a close match, the latter was not very sensitive to fine detail.
Prof Lepora believes it might be as the 3D printed material is thicker as compared to real skin.
His team will now be looking into ways to create similar structures on a more microscopic level that matches human skin to make artificial skin better than real skim, or at least as good.