Solar-powered skin could help create cheaper, better prosthetics

27 Nov 2020

Image: © Yurii Zushchyk/

This week in future tech, researchers in Scotland have created a new type of solar-powered skin that could make prosthetics better and cheaper.

Prosthetics with the ability to mimic the sense of touch are in reach thanks to a new type of solar-powered skin, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow. Writing in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, the scientists described how a robotic hand wrapped in their flexible solar skin is capable of interacting with objects without using dedicated and expensive touch sensors.

Instead, the skin makes gives the array of miniaturised solar cells integrated on its soft polymer surface a dual use. The cells generate enough energy to power the micro-actuators which control the hand’s movements, but they also provide the hand with its unique sense of ‘touch’ by measuring the variations in the solar cells’ output.

As an object gets closer to the surface of a cell and the light reflecting off it dims, the skin is then able to calculate the shape of an incoming object.

“It’s one step closer to a completely self-powered prosthetic wrapped in flexible skin made from relatively inexpensive components,” said Prof Ravinder Dahiya, lead of the University of Glasgow’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies group.

“The sensing capabilities built into the skin could even lead to skin that can ‘see’ – further refinements could help the skin identify approaching objects even before they make contact.”

ESA to sign €86m contract to launch trash collector satellite

ESA will sign an €86m contract with an industrial team led by the Swiss start-up ClearSpace for the first removal of an item of space debris from orbit. As part of the agreement, ClearSpace will launch a mission – called ClearSpace-1

This will be a dedicated debris removal mission, which will rendezvous, capture and bring down for re-entry a Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (Vespa).

ESA said the object was left in an approximately 801km by 664km-altitude gradual disposal orbit. This complied with space debris mitigation regulations and followed the second flight of Vega back in 2013. With a mass of 112kg, the Vespa target is close in size to a small satellite.

Over the course of 60 years, more than 5,550 launches have produced more than 42,000 tracked objects in orbit, of which about 23,000 are regularly tracked. ESA warned that with the annual launch rate now averaging almost 100 per year – and with break-ups continuing to occur at average historical rates of four to five per year – the number of debris objects in space will steadily increase.

ClearSpace-1 will look to demonstrate the technical ability to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.

US Army researches find way to read soldiers’ minds

C4ISRNET reported earlier this week that the US Army Research Office revealed it had funded a study that – using a specially designed algorithm – had successfully separated brain signals that influence action or behaviour from signals that don’t.

In testing, the researchers could detect which signals in the brain were directing behaviour-relevant ones and separate them from behaviour-irrelevant ones. Among its potential purposes is to one day allow soldiers to communicate silently via a computer.

“In a theatre, you can have two people talking to each other without … even whispering a word,” said Hamid Krim, programme manager for the US Army Research Office.

“So you and I are out there in the theatre and we have to … talk about something that we’re confronting. I basically talked to my computer — your computer can be in your pocket, it can be your mobile phone or whatever — and that computer talks to … your teammate’s computer. And then his or her computer is going to talk to your teammate.”

However, Krim said that such a system could still be decades away from becoming a reality.

Smart home devices to exceed 13bn by 2025

Juniper Research has estimated that there will be almost 13.5bn smart home devices in active use by 2025, compared to the expected 7.4bn by the end of this year. Smart entertainment devices are expected to take the bulk of revenue attributable to smart home devices, at more than $230bn in 2025.

However, unlike the early entries to the market that sold these devices as part of smart home packages, the research authors expect manufacturers to soon make most of their income on purchases made on the devices. The researchers noted that smart home automation will only be used by 11pc of households globally in 2025. These devices, primarily lightbulbs and locks, are not ones that consumers will need to replace on a regular basis.

“The value in this segment is being able to encourage use throughout the home; leading to a high level of value for each adopter,” said co-author James Moar.

“Outside of entertainment, adoption will come more from vendors making them the default option, rather than the technology encouraging replacement of utilitarian devices.”

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic