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Remaking Human Skin: Neurobotics at Gordon Cheng’s ICS Lab in Germany

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) had lured Cheng from a Japanese research institute. At TUM he founded the Institute of Cognitive Systems (ICS). With eight employees in a central office on Karlstraße 45, Cheng set to work on his arduous task: recreating the complexities of human skin and wiring it all to a brain.

In 2010 Professor Gordon Cheng left Kyoto for Munich on a quest to explore the human brain… and human skin.

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) had lured Cheng from a Japanese research institute. At TUM he founded the Institute of Cognitive Systems (ICS). With eight employees in a central office on Karlstraße 45, Cheng set to work on his arduous task: recreating the complexities of human skin and wiring it all to a brain.

Remaking Human Skin: from HEX-O-SKIN to CellulARSKIN

Human skin has a delicate and artful architecture: with five million free nerve endings, it transduces light and depth pressure, heat or cold, shear stress, and detects vibrations as well as physical or chemical danger. It is also fused with muscular, joint, and other aspects of the human proprioceptive system, on top of being connected to the brain to help us perform tasks and exercise motion control.

Cheng and assistant Philipp Mittendorfer noted that although researchers regularly put sensors on robot fingertips, they seldom did so for the entire robot body due to wiring costs, sensor connection problems, and enormous weight and space demands.

The HEX-O-SKIN is ICS’ first and foremost invention: a small hexagon-shaped circuit board equipped with sensors to measure temperature, acceleration, proximity, and vibrations, in a manner similar to how real human skin detects touch. Its connected cells transmit electrical signals through multiple pathways and send them back to a central computer.

In 2014 ICS made headliners when 29-year-old paralyzed man Juliano Pinto appeared at the World Cup Opening in Sao Paulo wearing an exoskeleton suit and kicked a soccer ball. The suit was made of of titanium, aluminum, and steel — its “feet” embedded with upgraded “CellulARSkin” artificial skin that transmitted tactile signals to the user. Cheng collaborated on the project with 150 researchers led by Brazilian neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University.

Exoskeletons wrapped with skin that can transmit vibration signals have practical applications in improving mobility for the elderly and the disabled. In intense six-month clinical trials, Cheng’s team worked with patients with C4 spinal cord injuries or whole body paralysis. Under supervised training, patients were able to use brain plasticity capabilities to “rewire” the brain. Cheng told Synced of his surprise at seeing “patients that are completely paralyzed make an effort to move their legs.”

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HEX-O-SKIN’s low profile makes it practical to cover an entire robot. The skin was used to sheath a lightweight robotic arm to test the robot’s reactions to the lightest touch or multiple touch inputs, its ability to balance a cup on a plate, and how it reacts to impact and even air drafts.

Neurobotics HUB in TUM, Germany, and Europe

In 2013 the European Union launched the 10-year Human Brain Project (HBP), one of its largest-ever scientific undertakings, involving more than 100 European universities, teaching hospitals, and research centres. Neurorobotics is one of the key research areas, “where virtual brain models meet real or simulated robot bodies.” The end goal is to link a simulated brain to a robotic body on the Neurorobitcs platform.

Born in Macau when it was still a Portuguese colony, Cheng finished his academic training in Australia and worked in Japan for 10 years, where he founded the Department for Humanoid Robotics and Computational Neuroscience at the Institute for Advanced Telecommunications Research in Kyoto. He was also responsible for a “computational brain” project.

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ICS Research platforms include TOMM, iCub, H-1, NAOs, PR2, Pepper, Bioloid, Keepon, EEG Lab, Vision Processing Cluster, Mask-Bot, KUKA-LWR, Robot skin cells, UR 5 and UR 10.

The ICS lab in Munich focuses on advanced control design, affective brain-computer interface, artificial robotic skin, biological-inspired learning, cognitive architecture, humanoid robotics, physical-human robot interaction and multi-modal sensor fusion, semantic reasoning, and social robotics. ICS has grown from its initial eight employees to around 20 staff and 80 students.

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Technical University of Munich’s most popular publishing areas

The Technical University of Munich is the top university in western Germany. CSRanking places TUM 9th among European schools, one spot behind Oxford. TUM has 30 faculty staff for Robotics and publishes heavily in this area. The larger faculty of Electrical Engineering houses 3,500 students and 400 staff members. The Computer Science department has 5,399 students and 438 staff members.


Journalist: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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