The Midas Touch: New Foam Material Allows Robots to 'Feel' and Self-Repair

The researchers say AiFoam signals a new paradigm for human-robot interaction.
Chris Young
AiFoam applied to a robotic hand.NUS/YouTube

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) developed a smart foam material that allows robot hands to self-repair and sense objects much like human skin, a report from Reuters explains. 

The foam material, called artificially innervated foam, or AiFoam, is made out of a high-elasticity polymer that is infused with microscopic metal particles and tiny electrodes, allowing it to replicate the human sense of touch.

When pressure is applied to the material, the metal particles move closer together, a change which is detected and interpreted by the computer-linked electrodes.

In a press statement earlier this year, Assistant Professor on the project, Benjamin Tee said, "we want to show that it is possible to replicate the human sense of touch in a robot, which opens up a new paradigm in the interaction between man and machine for future applications."

"It can also allow prosthetic users to have more intuitive use of their robotic arms when grabbing objects," he told Reuters.

The NUS researchers say their material will enable a robotic hand to detect the force and direction of an object it comes in contact with, a feature that will make robots more intelligent as well as more interactive.

Programming robots to 'feel'

AiFoam isn't the first material capable of allowing robots to gain a tactile sense of their surroundings. A global team of researchers recently used magnetic sensors and a flexible magnetized film to also allow robots to "feel."

Another team from Cornell University developed a unique alternative based on soft robotics. Using an inflatable robot with a camera inside it, they trained an algorithm to detect different types of human touch on the robot's surface with up to 96 percent accuracy. 

All of these methods stand to improve the interaction between humans and robots amid the increasing automation of our cities — the 2020 Robotic Report by IFR showed a 12 percent increase in robots operating in factories globally last year, a figure which is expected to increase year-on-year.

The NUS researchers told Reuters that AiFoam is the first material of its kind to provide self-healing properties as well as proximity and pressure sensing. They hope the material can be commercialized and put to practical use globally within the next half a decade.

The video below provides a summary of AiFoam's ability to allow robots to interact intelligently with their surroundings.

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