Electronic Smart Tattoos Enable Control of a Robotic Hand

Researchers are using temporary tattoos to add functionality to robots and healthcare monitoring. Sturdy but flexible, these devices can track body movements and bring life to robots.


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Image credit: Lixue Tang, Southern University of Science and Technology

Being thin-skinned is desirable in the world of electronic skin and tattoos. These devices are worn on the body to measure vital signs or other medical issues. They are often made of silicone, are relatively thick, and lack elasticity, limiting their usefulness. New research is melding flexible circuitry with tattoo-like adhesion to enable biomonitoring, robotic controls, and even flexible displays.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have developed a method of printing circuits on temporary tattoo film, similar to the kind used in temporary tattoos. Using an off-the-shelf inkjet printer, the team first prints the film with circuits made of silver nanoparticles. The circuit is then coated with a thin layer of a liquid metal alloy to increase conductivity and robustness.

The tattoo is very thin, stretchable, and inexpensive, according to the research team. It can be used to power electronic devices, such as a Fitbit or an accelerometer. Because it can track body motion or measure the wearer’s vital signs, researchers designed it to be used in medical and gaming applications.

The material can stretch about 30 percent, similar to human skin, and it adheres to folds in the skin and other curved or 3D surfaces, such as a model of the human brain. The user adheres it with water, and it lays flat to the skin. It can be washed off when no longer needed or wanted.

Flexing Circuits

A conglomerate of Chinese researchers, led by Lixue Tang at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, have developed the multilayered electronic transfer tattoo (METT). It is essentially a sticker with circuits embedded between the acrylic adhesive layer and the top release layer. It integrates 15 strain sensors and one heater.

The three-layered tattoo can stretch up to 800 percent and conforms to the skin, even operating over creases on fingers. According to the development team, the strain from bending over joints enables the crease amplification effect, which increases the output signal threefold, making it a durable alternative to more rigid wearable circuits.

The team has tested the METT on a hand and a glove. In both cases the wearer was able to control the movements of a robotic hand directing it to perform delicate and complex tasks remotely. The METT can monitor 15 degrees of freedom of the hand, so it can guide a robotic hand with the same DOF.

Images of hands with skin sensors or them

Image credit: Lixue Tang, Southern University of Science and Technology 

More Skin in the Game

The use of electronic skin-like devices is on the rise. In 2019, the electronic skin market was nearly $6.5 billion and is projected to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 14.4 percent to reach more than $16 billion in 2026. The increase in robotics and healthcare use is driving growth, along with the demand for wearable electronics.

Electronic skin and tattoos can be used in healthcare to monitor vital signs, cardiovascular health, pregnancy, and glucose levels; they can even detect brain anomalies. They have been used by athletes and can link to a smart phone app to track and record heart rate and other markers during workouts and performances.                                                                                                                          

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