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UBC Researchers Develop New Inexpensive Sensor

(Credit: The University of British Columbia)

Researchers from the University of British Columbia have developed a new, inexpensive sensor that could pave the way to realize advanced devices such as an artificial skin capable of sensing body’s vital signs movements and a tablet that can be folded to the size of a phone and carried in a pocket.

Using a highly conductive gel that is sandwiched between silicone layers, the sensor can sense various types of touch, including tapping and swiping, even when it is bent, folded, or stretched. This feature makes the sensor suitable for future foldable devices.

There are sensors that can detect pressure, such as the iPhone’s 3D Touch, and some that can detect a hovering finger, like Samsung’s AirView. There are also sensors that are foldable, transparent and stretchable. Our contribution is a device that combines all those functions in one compact package.

Mirza Saquib Sarwar, PhD Student, UBC

The research team has described its novel sensor in a recent paper in the Science Advances journal. This prototype has dimensions of 5 cm x 5 cm, but it is easily scalable as it uses cheaper, commonly available materials, such as silicone and gel.

New UBC flexible sensors holds potential for foldable devices

It’s entirely possible to make a room-sized version of this sensor for just dollars per square metre, and then put sensors on the wall, on the floor, or over the surface of the body - almost anything that requires a transparent, stretchable touch screen. And because it’s cheap to manufacture, it could be embedded cost-effectively in disposable wearables like health monitors.

Mirza Saquib Sarwar, PhD Student, UBC

It is also possible to integrate the sensor into robotic “skins” to achieve safer robot-human interactions, explained John Madden, Sarwar’s supervisor and a professor in UBC’s faculty of applied science.

“Currently, machines are kept separate from humans in the workplace because of the possibility that they could injure humans. If a robot could detect our presence and be ‘soft’ enough that they don’t damage us during an interaction, we can safely exchange tools with them, they can pick up objects without damaging them, and they can safely probe their environment,” said Madden.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada funded the research.

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