IMAGINE a world in which robots can experience the human sense of touch. Where someone with a prosthetic arm can feel with their fingers again.

Well, such a world is just around the corner thanks to pioneering Scottish scientists who are developing artificial 'electronic' skin.

Experts say the technology, which is expected to be available in just five years’ time, will bring major transformations in manufacturing, health and communications. The practical uses include restoring feeling in prosthetic limbs for amputees.

The breakthrough could also bring an Avatar-like world closer to reality, where an object can be ‘touched’ by someone who is physically miles away.

Dr Ravinder Dahiya, reader at Glasgow University and leader of the university's Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies Group, said artificial skin could be used on prosthetic hands, for example, to enable amputees to regain sensory feelings.

He said it could also enable robots to have a sense of touch and know what they are in contact with, which could improve safety for manufacturers.

There have been cases of accidents occurring in workplaces where robots are used, such as last year, when a worker at a Volkswagen factory in Germany died after a robot grabbed him and crushed him against a metal plate.

Dahiya said: “We currently have robots working in cages in the car industry, for example, and no human is allowed to go in that area.

“If these robots have skin, even if a human mistake is made, then the human will be safe. It might change the landscape so that when you go to a plant you might see robots and humans working side by side in the future."

Dahiya will be discussing his work at a TedX Glasgow event on June 3, which invites speakers to share innovative ideas.

He said the technology was not restricted to the area of robotics and could also have a wide variety of uses for healthcare.

“It could be applied to be a ‘second skin’ for humans, with some sensors that could analyse sweat on a real-time basis,” he said. “That could detect changes in the chemical composition which could be used as an early warning sign for a chronic disease, such as diabetes.”

Dahiya said another application would be to help surgeons performing operations such as laparoscopy - where a small camera is used to look inside the body - to help them ‘feel’ what is going on at the end of the instrument.

But he also said the technology could be used to enter the realms of the movie Avatar, where human characters can use virtual reality ‘bodies’ to explore other worlds.

“The extension of feeling which is possible with artificial skin has a huge impact,” Dahiya said. “I could be sitting in my office, but feeling objects sitting on another table miles away with some tools.

“Tactile feedback is critical for that Avatar-like concept, where you can remotely feel an environment or a surface or objects.”

One of the key breakthroughs for the team was their discovery of a low-cost way to develop sheets of graphene, a key component of the artificial skin. It is the world’s thinnest material - one-million times thinner than a human hair, but is 200 times stronger than steel and conducts heat and electricity better than copper.

Dahiya said the development of the artificial skin also involved the use of nanowire technology - incredibly thin wires that can be used to make sensors.

“In previous work (on skin for robots), we used off-the-shelf components and we integrated them in an innovative way which resulted in skin,” he said.

“Now we are working on an entire process building right through from nanowire to a full system. Five years from now, I envisage an ultra-flexible skin that will be able to sense multiple parameters.”