Advancements in skin-inspired robotics have been on the rise in the last few years. From snake-inspired scaly constructs that allow robots to crawl to electronic skin that allows you to monitor your heart rate, it seems researchers are determined to build robotic devices that are add-ons rather than independent robots.
This makes a lot of sense if you think about the world around us. Robots in themselves are great but what if we could use robotics to enhance our regular, and perhaps a little boring, surroundings?
Animating the inanimate
Now, a team from Yale has taken this idea to another level with the introduction of something they call “Robotic Skins.” The novel technology, initially developed for NASA, allows users to animate everyday inanimate objects.
The futuristic skins are made from supple elastic sheets embedded with specialized sensors and actuators developed in the lab of Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science at Yale. If placed on a deformable object such as a foam structure, these skins can give the once static object movement turning it into essentially a makeshift robot.
These now animated objects can be used to perform a variety of tasks depending on the malleability of the objects and the application of the skins. The technology brings to life (quite literally) a whole new range of robots that can have novel applications in everything from search-and-rescue operations to wearable support.
Limited only by the imagination
Users can use their imagination to design their own unique robotic systems specialized to suit their individual needs. “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.
“We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device," she added. Robotic skins, therefore, can be recycled and reimagined over and over again to create countless multi-functional robots on the fly.
More impressively, using more than one skin at a time allows for even more complex movements. “Now we can get combined modes of actuation — for example, simultaneous compression and bending," Kramer-Bottiglio explained.
Ideal for space support
The technology was first designed in partnership with NASA to meet the agency's call for soft robotic systems. It was supposed to allow astronauts to accomplish an array of tasks with the same reconfigurable material.
With space being limited on the International Space Station (ISS), Robotic Skins provided a practical reusable solution for turning the station's available materials into useful tools. The skins could, for example, be applied to a piece of foam to turn it into a robotic arm and then reapplied to create a Mars rover.
Any ISS material, from balloons to balls of crumpled paper, could potentially be made into a purpose-driven robot ready to support astronauts in their difficult and varied tasks. Best of all, as space is full of surprises, the reconfigurable Robotic Skins could be easily rearranged to create new robots ideal for tackling never-before-seen situations.
"One of the main things I considered was the importance of multifunctionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns?”
The study is published in Science Robotics.