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A research team co-led by the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) recently developed an innovative human-machine interface (HMI) that can teleoperate robots to mimic user actions and perform complex tasks. This breakthrough technology demonstrates the potential to perform COVID-19 swab testing and care for patients with infectious diseases.

A key component of the advanced HMI system, named Robotic VR, is the flexible, multi-layer electronic skin developed by Dr. Yu Xinge, Associate Professor in CityU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), and his team. The bottom layer of the skin-colored silicone elastomer system serves as a flexible adhesive interface that can be mounted to the user’s skin and joints.

Dr Yu said the new system enables teleoperating robotics to perform complex tasks. Doctors wearing the HMI system with VR glasses can remotely control the robots and feel the tactile sensations of the robots to perform surgery precisely, and medical workers can remotely manipulate the robots to care for infectious patients or collect biological samples, thereby significantly reducing infection. risk.

The team has conducted experiments such as remotely controlling the robotic hand to collect throat swab samples for COVID-19 testing and teleoperating humanoid robots to clean a room and even provide patient care. The team is developing a next-generation system for robotic nasal swab test collection.

The layers of the electronic skin are interconnected with a collection of chip-scale integrated circuits and sensing components, including resistors, capacitors, a Bluetooth module, a microcontroller unit (MCU) and sensors and software actuators developed by the team.

The sensors in the Robotic VR system can accurately detect and convert subtle human movements into electrical signals, which are processed by the MCU and transmitted wirelessly to the target robot. This way, the user can teleoperate with the robot to mimic its movement to complete tasks remotely. Pressure sensors on the robot can send feedback signals to control the vibration intensity of haptic actuators through the Bluetooth module, thereby providing haptic feedback to the user. The user can then precisely control and adjust the movement of the robot arm according to the intensity of the feedback.

The new system is stretchable and can be firmly mounted on human skin and even the whole human body for a long time. Additionally, the interface provides haptic and visual feedback systems, providing an immersive experience for users.

The HMI system connects users with robotics or computers and plays an important role in teleoperating robotics. However, conventional HMIs rely on bulky, rigid and expensive machines, and the lack of adequate user feedback limits their application for performing complicated tasks.

With the advanced circuit design and outstanding mechanical characteristics, Dr. Yu believes that Robotic VR can teleoperate various machines, such as driverless cars, while people with disabilities can remotely manipulate a robot to transport heavy goods. This new system should also help provide a new approach to wirelessly connecting people to a robot or virtual character in the metaverse.

The system supports three wireless transmission methods – Bluetooth (up to tens of meters), Wi-Fi (up to about 100 meters) and Internet (worldwide) – which can be adjusted according to the practical applications.

The study was published in Science Advances under the title “Electronic Skin as Wireless Human Machine Interfaces for Robotic VR”. The corresponding authors are Dr. Yu and Professor Xie Zhaoqian from Dalian University of Technology (DUT). The first authors are PhD students Liu Yiming, Yiu Chun-ki and post-doc Dr. Huang Ya from BME and Ms. Song Zhen from DUT.

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