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Electronic Skins Add Robotic Functions to Objects

Robotic skin

Robotic skin showing pneumatic actuator motors (Yale University)

20 September 2018. An engineering lab developed a way to integrate electronic sensors and motors into flexible materials, which can be added to inanimate objects to give them robotic functions. Researchers from Yale University describe their process in yesterday’s issue of the journal Science Robotics.

Robotic devices are being developed to perform a multitude of tasks, but these devices are usually designed for specific tasks or a collection of related purposes, with their functions determined in advance. A team from Yale University’s Faboratory lab, led by mechanical engineering and materials science professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio is seeking a technology that makes possible multi-functional robotics that can be applied and adjusted to meet different needs, rather than developing an entirely new device for each specific purpose. The Faboratory specializes in soft-material robotics that easily bend and flex.

The Yale team, with colleagues from Purdue University in Indiana, developed their solution as two-dimensional flexible surfaces. These surfaces, made from sheets of commercially-available plastics and fabrics have integrated electronic sensors and actuator motors that can be applied to the outside of inanimate but flexible objects, so the objects can sense conditions in the environment or respond to commands. As a result, objects originally designed to be stationary, can perform additional functions with these robotic skins attached. And the researchers also found that mixing different types of substrates, sensors, and actuator motors — pneumatic or shape memory allows that deform then return to their original shape — influence the actions carried out by the robotic skins.

To prove the concept, Kramer-Bottiglio and colleagues first added robotic skins to simple soft or flexible objects like stuffed animals. The researchers found, for example, that using the skins on different parts of an object will enable the object to respond in different ways. Also, using the same robotic skin on a different object, will also get different results indicating that the object’s original design and capabilities are key factors in the functions performed with the robotic skin attached.  In addition, combining different types of robotic skins to different parts of an object make it possible for the object to perform more complex tasks.

“We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task — locomotion, for example,” says Kramer-Bottiglio in a university statement, “and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object. We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.” In fact, one of the prototypes developed by the team is a wearable robotic skin that responds to and corrects poor posture.

The researchers designed the robotic skin technology in partnership with NASA, which needs multi-functional robotic systems in space travel, where single-purpose devices would be too difficult to design and build in space, or resupply from earth. A long piece of foam with a robotic skin added, for example, could be configured into a robotic arm. Her lab recently received a 4-year $2 million National Science Foundation grant to develop a more programmable skin for adding robotic functions to objects when the desired functions are not completely known, or be able to respond to unforeseen and changing environments.

Kramer-Bottiglio tells more about the project and demonstrates robotic skins in the following video

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