A team of researchers out of Yale University have come up with a flexible, stretchy material that can turn just about any object into a multi-functional robot.
Team leader and robotics expert Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio recognized the need for creating versatile robots that could be easily transported, while also be able to function over a variety of landscapes and environments. Thus, the OmniSkins was born. According to a paper published in Science Robotics, the material is made from sheets of elastic that have been outfitted with sensors and actuators, and they’re totally modular. What does this mean? Essentially, the sheets can be fitted to each other “like Legos”, Kramer-Bottiglio told Smithsonian.com.
When fitted to inanimate objects, the skins initiate movement by applying simple force to the surface. Not only can the material create movement, it can also sense when an object needs more force or less, depending on how much it is being pushed back upon.
Kramer-Bottiglio came up with the idea for the project a few years ago when she was tasked with making versatile, soft robotic systems for NASA. A big issue she faced was being able to come up with something that was small and light enough to be easily transported into space, while also meeting NASA’s demands. The solution was simple: eliminate the number of robots that were needed in space by coming up with fewer robots that could be easily reconfigured to complete more tasks.
The OmniSkins are lightweight and can be stored flat during transportation, meeting NASA’s criteria perfectly. Not only are they compact, they can also be used again and again for a multitude of assignments.
“They can be applied to, removed from, and transferred between various host objects, so we can use the same hardware over and over again to generate many different configurations with many different functions,” Kramer-Bottiglio said, adding that the skins can be “combined, separated, and re-combined in different patterns.”
A test video posted to YouTube showed the skins being used on a stuffed horse’s legs which, when activated, allowed the horse’s legs to move back and forth and push the toy across a table, like it was walking independently. Later on in the same video, we see a small pool noodle wrapped with the skins inch across the table like a worm.
Using more than one skin at a time on an object will allow for much more complicated movements and different types of motion, like bending. The applications of this material are virtually endless, and will allow for significant applications in space with the addition of hardware like cameras and environmental sensors, Kramer-Bottiglio said.
“Future astronauts exploring another planet could quickly construct a robot using the robotic skins wrapped around whatever deformable materials they have access to and stick a camera on it, and then deploy the robot for exploration of small or dangerous spaces,” she explained.
In addition to the OmniSkins, there are currently other solutions being developed for similar tasks, such as the lightweight Super Ball Bot that NASA created from bars and cables that can be fired at a planet’s surface and absorb the shock.
Kramer-Bottiglio’s team has been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the research. Next, the team will work on streamlining the OmniSkins and even explore the possibility of 3D printing its components, she told Yale News.