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Always wished your stuffed animals could come alive like the ones in Disney’s animated Toy Story franchise? Then you will be thrilled to hear about the new “robotic skins,” which can instantly transform any object into a robot capable of performing basic tasks, like sprinting or climbing. The ingenious device is the brainchild of a team of researchers led by Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale University.
Made using elastic polymer or fabric, the flexible robotic skins can be easily wrapped around objects of all shapes and sizes. They are equipped with sensors as well as air pouches that inflate when pumped with gas, and/or nickel-titanium coils, which contract when heated by an electric current. When activated, they help manipulate the object the skins are wrapped around and bring it to “life.”
“It’s a flat robot that has… artificial muscles embedded in it and sensors to detect how much those muscles have contracted,” says team member Joran Booth. “We can control the things that it’s wrapped around.”
While robots are typically constructed to perform a single function, the researchers say the skins can be used to instantly create multifunctional robots. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task — locomotion, for example — and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio.
To demonstrate the skin’s versatility, the team aligned it in different configurations around a foam tube to create robots that could scoot like inchworms or paddle forward on two ends. Wrapping the magical device around three foam fingers resulted in a soft robot grabber. The researchers also used it to create a “smart” shirt that corrects bad posture with the “robot” wriggling gently whenever the wearer’s shoulders slump.
Josh Bongard, associate professor of computer science at the University of Vermont, who is joining the project to help design future robotic skins, thinks the application could also be useful during natural disasters. “Imagine a roboticized sandbag that can crawl into rubble and shore it up by changing shape, thus making the site safe enough for rescuers to extract human survivors trapped within,” he said. “In a way, these sandbags would be like soft Transformers.”
While these are all fun and useful applications, Kramer-Bottiglio and her team, who published their study in the journal Science Robotics on September 19, 2018, have bigger, “out of this world” aspirations for the device. The researchers, who came up with the idea in response to NASA’s call out for soft robots, believe that given the high cost of space cargo, the multifunctional and reusable skin will be invaluable to astronauts on interplanetary missions. They envision the same lightweight skins being wrapped around a piece of foam to create robotic arms and then reconfigured to create soft Mars rovers that can seamlessly roll over the rough terrain. What makes the idea even more powerful is that astronauts could transform anything at their disposal, even a piece of crumpled paper, into a robot!
The robotic skins, which currently only work with each piece tied to an individual hose or with wires feeding into the gas pouches or electric coils, are not available for off-the-shelf use yet. However, given that the project received a $2 million grant for further development from the National Science Foundation this October, the day you will be able to unleash an army of stuffed animals to do your bidding is not too far away!
Resources: news.yale.edu,sciencenews,org, popsci.org, abcgonews.com