By Elton Gomes
Researchers from Yale University have developed a type of skin that allows users to turn inanimate objects into movable things and everyday objects into robots.
Developed in the lab of Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, robotic skins allow users to design their own robotic systems. Kramer-Bottiglio said that the skins could be used in search-and-rescue robots to wearable technologies. The team has published its results in Science Robotics.
What are robotic skins?
The skins are elastic sheets that are embedded with a network of sensors and actuators that flex and relax, similar to how a muscle functions. The sheets can be buttoned together to form a sheath, or they can be linked together to develop a more complex machine.
How can they be used?
“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,” Kramer-Bottiglio said, adding that the skins can be put on a shirt: “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device,” Astronomy reported.
How will this help astronauts
Kramer-Bottiglio said that the robot skins were originally designed keeping NASA astronauts in mind. Transporting a single pound to space costs around $10,000, so rather than sending an army of robots, Kramer-Bottiglio thought of sending lightweight, multifunctional robotic skins.
Where can the skins be useful
The robotic skins could be useful in a field known as soft robotics, according to David Howard, a robotics research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an independent Australian agency.
Soft robots offer more advantages than robots with a rigid design. For instance, a typical robotic arm is static, solid and can only interact with its environment in a particular way. Soft robots, however, can be “deformable, soft and squidgy” and are better able to adapt to their surroundings — which means that they could easily fit into tight spots or get around corners. Soft robots can be less easy to damage, but controlling them can be tricky. Traditional means of robotic control cannot be applied to soft robots as they’re able to take on different shapes.
Dr Howard explains how the robotic skins could be helpful to soft robots: “Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope. If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is,” ABC reported. This is where Dr Howard thinks that robotic skins could be of some help, particularly with the prototyping process.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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