Robotic Skin Animates Inert Objects
Researchers at Yale University have developed a multifunctional elastic skin, equipped with sensors and actuators, that can bring movement to inert objects such as toys. A technology co-developed with NASA that could find applications in space.
Transform everyday objects into robots. In short, this is what makes the “robotic skin” developed at Yale University. It is wrapped around an object and allows it to move, to grasp or feel its environment. The principle of this elastic material is that it offers the possibility to animate any usual object to accomplish a given task. Better, by changing the location of the robotic skin on the object, we can even change its function.
The demonstration that we see in the video, below, shows us in particular a plush and a foam sheath. Even a vulgar crumpled paper ball could become a robot, explain the researchers. This skin is designed from elastic sheets in which are incorporated sensors and pneumatic actuators designed by the researchers. Completely flexible and detachable, it can be reused at will as needed.
It is even possible to superimpose layers of this skin to combine actions and perform complex movements, for example simultaneous flexion and compression. To demonstrate the capabilities of his invention, the Yale team performed some experiments on a stuffed horse whose legs come to life, an insulating foam tube that can crawl like a worm or forceps that can move objects.
Another interesting application put forward: the use of this robotic skin on clothes to detect the movements of the person wearing them. As seen in the video, the sensors can monitor the posture and produce a contraction effect to signal to the user that he has adopted a wrong position. Still, it would take a lot of work miniaturization and integration for this kind of system is usable in real conditions.
The multifunctional and reusable aspect is also of interest to NASA, which co-developed this robotic skin with Yale University. “The same skins used to make a robotic arm from a piece of foam could be re-used to create a flexible rover that can roll over rugged terrain on Mars,” says Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, the scientist at the head of the lab who led this project.
Such a reconfigurable device would be very relevant for space exploration in unknown and unpredictable environments because it would avoid having to carry several kinds of very expensive robots, she adds. However, it is not clear whether the US space agency has planned to test this robotic skin during a future mission.
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