Piezosensor: As if by magic

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Humans and machines are moving closer together. So it is important for them to “understand” one another. An amazing solution to that problem has been developed in Switzerland.

They say that small gestures can have a big impact. What applies to contact between people could soon simplify man-machine communication. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt EMPA) have developed a sensor made of piezoresistive fibers that generates control signals for electronic devices from the slightest hand movements. The fibers, which are integrated into a wristband, convert minimal pressure differences such as those created by moving the wrist into electric signals. That makes it possible to control the movements of robots or drones just like Harry Potter.


Of course, motion-sensor technology is nothing new. But until now, that job was usually performed by visual sensors (cameras), accelerometers and gyroscopes (for rotational movements). But they only register large, clear movements within a certain speed range that are unnatural for human beings. However, the new EMPA sensor reacts to the slightest gestures. Combined with existing technologies, it will supposedly make it possible for humans and machines to communicate in a more intuitive and nuanced manner in the future. For example, combining the piezosensor with acceleration, rotation and orientation sensors facilitates entirely new commands for controlling technical devices such as drones, robots and garage doors.

Piezosensor in an adhesive patch

The Swiss researchers have already integrated a prototype of the piezosensor in a conventional wristband using 3D printing and have successfully tested it with drones. However, for the future it will be necessary to further optimize the algorithms to recognize not just individual movements, but movement sequences, as well. For example, quickly clenching one’s fist twice triggers a different command that one time short and one long.

An adhesive patch that would accommodate the piezoresistive sensor instead of the wristband is also in development. Although this project is still in its infancy, technically everything is already working perfectly. Work has already started on industrial implementation together with STBL Medical Research AG and other partners.

Piezosensor (Image: EMPA)

A wristband contains piezoresistive fibers that transmit wrist movements to drones. (Image: EMPA).