Scientists have developed an electronic skin that can turn everyday objects — from a stuffed animal to balls of crumpled paper — into robots. The robotic skins, developed by researchers at Yale University in the US, enable users to design their own robotic systems. The skins are made from elastic sheets embedded with sensors and actuators. Placed on a deformable object the skins animate these objects from their surfaces, according to a study published in the journal Science Robotics. The makeshift robots can perform different tasks depending on the properties of the soft objects and how the skins are applied.
“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,” said Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, an assistant professor at Yale. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device,” said Kramer-Bottiglio.
Robots are typically built with a single purpose in mind. The robotic skins, however, allow users to create multi-functional robots on the fly. That means they can be used in settings that hadn’t even been considered when they were designed, said Kramer-Bottiglio. Additionally, using more than one skin at a time allows for more complex movements. For instance, Kramer-Bottiglio said, you can layer the skins to get different types of motion.
“Now we can get combined modes of actuation — for example, simultaneous compression and bending,” she said.
To demonstrate the robotic skins in action, the researchers created a handful of prototypes. These include foam cylinders that move like an inchworm, a shirt-like wearable device designed to correct poor posture, and a device with a gripper that can grasp and move objects. The technology was designed in partnership with NASA, and its multifunctional and reusable nature would allow astronauts to accomplish an array of tasks with the same reconfigurable material.
The same skins used to make a robotic arm out of a piece of foam could be removed and applied to create a soft Mars rover that can roll over rough terrain. With the robotic skins on board, anything from balloons to balls of crumpled paper could potentially be made into a robot with a purpose, researchers said.