Thanks to Rick for sending in this blog tip! Via DesignNews.
Researchers have developed a new flexible fabric that integrates both movement and sensors, introducing new potential for technology-embedded clothing and soft robots.
Whereas other materials developed for wearable technology and flexible robots focus on either flexible actuation or allowing for embedded sensors and electronics, Purdue engineers have developed a material that allows for both, said Rebecca Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue who developed the material, in article on the Purdue website.
The material is made of a flexible polymer and threadlike strands of a shape-memory alloy that return to a coiled shape when heated, causing the fabric to move. Kramer and her team used standard sewing techniques to introduce the actuators and sensors into the fabric, she said in the article, “so they could conceivably be integrated into the existing textile manufacturing infrastructure.”
The team — which also included a group of doctoral students — co-authored a paper on research they presented recently during the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Chicago.
Another advantage to the fabric is that it’s “devoid of rigid components,” allowing for unprecedented flexibility when integrated with electronics, Michelle Yuen, a PhD student who co-authored the paper and co-developed the fabric, told Design News. “By integrating this technology into existing clothing, the wearer’s natural motion and sensation is more free than in other wearable systems that incorporate hard components,” she said.
Potential applications for the fabric include soft robots that have sensory skin that can “feel,” or flexible robot clothing that people can wear to provide more strength and endurance.
The flexible fabric also has potential uses for space technology, such as so-called “g-suits” for astronauts that counteract the effects of acceleration, or lightweight robots that can explore extraterrestrial landscapes during space missions.
To create a soft robot, the fabric can be wrapped around a block of foam or an inflated balloon, according to researchers. Moving the fabric in one direction causes the robot to bend, while moving it in a different direction causes it to compress.
The benefit of using the fabric to create such a robot is that all the functional elements of the system are embedded in the skin, researchers said. The skin itself, then, can include flexible electronics that are rugged enough for space missions, allowing for the transport of lightweight, easy-to-store sheets of robotic skin that can be assembled once they reach their destination.
“We will be able to design robots on the fly,” Kramer said in the article. “Anything can be a robot because all of the robotic technology is in the fabric or skin.”
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