June 15, 2010      

The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in February commissioned Peratech Ltd. to work jointly on a project to develop technology by which people can interact tactilely with a robot in much the same way as they would with another human. Peratech is a British provider of touch-sensing technology solutions based on Quantum Tunnelling Composite (QTC). Patented by Peratech, QTC is a new class of electrically conductive material that has many uses as a sensing technology. The MIT commission speaks to the potential of the technology Peratech developed.

From Insulator to Conductor
David and Chris Lussey, the inventors of Quantum Tunnelling Composite technology, founded Peratech in 1996. The material itself is stretchy and elastic, and can be screen-printed as a flexible sheet as thin as 75 microns. It can also be used as a 10-micron-thick coating. Peratech describes QTC as a “pressure switching and sensing material technology” that uses patented XY scanning technology to locate touched points.

In a paper in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Peratech researchers characterized QTC as “a metal-polymer composite with nanostructured filler particles and amplified physical properties.” They went on to describe that when spiky nickel nanoparticles are embedded in a material such as an elastic polymer, the result starts out as an excellent insulator. But when pressure compresses the nanoparticles, they move closer together. The result is electron “tunnelling” from one nanoparticle to another, at which time the material acts as a conductor. In addition, the electrical resistance in the material drops in proportion to the force applied, providing accurate pressure feedback.

Depending on the type of polymer used and the concentration of nickel nanoparticles embedded, QTC can be produced in a variety of shapes and thicknesses with a pressure-sensing range from feathers to full contact sports. According to Peratech, QTC is an outstanding touch-sensing solution for industries as diverse as robotics, switching components, automobiles, toys, and clothing. Peratech says the QTC works in a range of thicknesses and is waterproof and immune to humidity.

The MIT Commission
MIT has released few details about any project with Peratech, but its choice of the company and technology indicates an effort to improve human and robot interaction. Peratech has already provided material and support to NASA for its Robonaut, and to Shadow Robot’s Shadow Dexterous Hand.

The MIT Media Lab has written papers about its use of QTC in several projects. The first, the “Design of a Therapeutic Robotic Companion for Relational, Affective Touch,” describes the use of QTC in its Huggable robotic animal companion. Another paper describes a “sensitive skin which combines force, temperature, and electric field sensing under a soft silicone skin,” also for robotic companions.

The announcement of the MIT commission to Peratech focused on using QTC for robotic devices designed to interact with humans, which would certainly include the Huggable robotic animal companion, as well as many of the early educational robotic tools for children popular at the MIT Media Lab. Having robots respond to touch the same way humans do would greatly enhance human-robot interaction.

Other Partnerships
Previous Peratech partners have used QTC for more mundane items such as cell phones (Nissha and Samsung) and electronic clothing (QIO Systems). Peratech management clearly feels strongly about the potential for electronic clothing because it took an equity position in QIO. Another product in the sophisticated touch-screen category is a cover for new electronic passports with an “off” button to stop RFID broadcasting.

Considering the MIT Media Labs’ high profile and wide range of projects, a successful partnership could catapult Peratech into a large number of new industries. Press reports already have speculated Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics group at MIT, as well as famous for designing and wearing biohybrid “smart” prostheses, would benefit from haptic feedback in his lower legs, ankles, and feet. MIT’s Computing Culture Lab group, which includes artists and engineers trying to reconfigure technology for the full range of human experience, would welcome the ability to add a sense of touch to their palette. The Design Ecology group also focuses on interactions with the technology in the environment, as do the Personal Robots and Responsive Environments groups. Once available to the MIT research culture, Peratech and QTC could be incorporated into the fabric of prototypes and products emanating from any number of MIT research groups.

Perhaps in recognition of future partnerships, in February 2010 Britain’s YFM Group invested $17 million in Peratech to support further research and development. The monies will also be used to increase sales in the United States and other countries.