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Imagine a second-skin that contorts on command and is filled with sensors. That’s exactly what researchers at Purdue University are trying to do with their development of a robotic fabric.

The concept of robotic fabric is that of a soft exoskeleton or muscle tissue made out of electronic sensors and shape-memory alloys, all woven and configured into a cotton material. The end result is a sort of “skin” that can be placed around deformable materials that give the “robot” its shape.

The end result is a sort of “muscle” fabric that would allow the skin to be used in a variety of ways – to create instant “inchworm” robots, as an endurance suit for humans under heavy g-forces or loads, or even as a programmable medical device that can be made to shape itself specifically for a patient’s needs.

Creating Robotic Fabric

Traditionally, robots have always been created using the human body and its internal skeleton as a model. This usually means hinges where joints would be, strong metal rods where bones would be, and the complex mechanics to achieve balance and dexterity during locomotion.

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Doctoral students doctoral students Michelle Yuen, Jennifer Case Justin Seipel, Arun Cherian and Kramer published a paper presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September, that turns this entire concept on its head. Instead of using the approach of an internal skeleton, these researchers created a sort of robotic exoskeleton that can be put to use in many more ways than a traditional robot.

How to Use Robotic Skin

The basic operation of the robotic skin is similar to a human muscle, or the contractions of an inchworm. The shape-memory alloy that is threaded into the cotton cloth can coil when heated, causing the fabric to move in the desired direction and flexible polymer combined with those threads provide sensing capabilities. Purdue University Professor Rebecca Kramer, who led the research team, explained it on the Purdue website as an external robot with the ability to actuate and sense on command.

We have integrated both actuation and sensing, whereas most robotic fabrics currently in development feature only sensing or other electronic components that utilize conductive thread.

The research was funded through the NASA Early Career Faculty Award. This would clearly be a technology useful in NASA’s space operations, since such a “soft robot” could easily be transported and fabricated quickly on a remote environment like the Moon or Mars, with very little effort. Such a robot would have low power demands as it crawls around or burrows into an alien environment. Attached sensors would be able to collect environmental information.

Kramer explained that this robotic technology Gadgets, Robots, Tech: The Best 5 Subreddits Gadgets, Robots, Tech: The Best 5 Subreddits You want to talk tech? Then you ought to check out these subreddits. Reddit is the melting pot for discussions and shout-outs, and these subreddits aren't for geek nerds only. Read More is a lower-power alternative to the old robotic hinge joint – instead of holding a joint in position, the robotic fabric can be “locked in place” to maintain position.

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Such an approach allows any object to become a robot, because “…all of the robotic technology is in the fabric or skin.”

Human Body Enhancement

In addition to space exploration, this robotic skin could also provide additional enhancements to the human body. These are somewhat more subtle than the larger exoskeleton applications Bionic Humans: Exoskeleton Technology Is Redefining Limits Bionic Humans: Exoskeleton Technology Is Redefining Limits Exoskeleton research has been underway for over a century, resulting in a number of viable prototypes. Surprisingly, though, they focus less on super-human strength and more on improving endurance and quality of life. Read More Matt recently described, but no less impressive. For example, while pilots currently use existing specialized “anti-G suits” that constrict the legs and stomach during high G-force maneuvers to keep blood in the upper body, this sort of robotic fabric could provide more accurate pressure points on the body than the air bladders which those suits provide.

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John Stapp faced tremendous G-forces during his 421 mph ride of “Sonic Wind” in 1954. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

This could enhance the effectiveness of those suits, allowing humans to face greater g-forces, to pilot more advanced craft, or to safely handle high-speed space travel. This isn’t quite like the bio-hacking examples Biohacking: The Creepy but Exciting Trend in Body Modification Biohacking: The Creepy but Exciting Trend in Body Modification "Sorry about the mess," says Steve Haworth, as we walk down the stairs to the surgical theater, where he merges consumer technology and the human body to produce uniquely functional body modifications. Read More that Andre recently covered, but it’s pretty close.

Medical Applications of Robotic Skin

Of the many applications of this technology, the medical field may benefit from the bulk of them. Not only can the material conform perfectly to a person’s joint or limb, but the embedded sensors could provide doctors will an easy way to monitor the physiology of a patient.

A sling or a cast may fast become old-school technology, as embedded sensors and programmable polymers get threaded into what may appear as a simple bandage.

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Not only could the shape memory alloy provide any level of compression required by the Doctor, but the flexible polymer sensors could monitor vital signs, detect the presence of infection, or monitor and alert the doctor when the injury is fully healed.

Even without sensors, the programmable alloy technology alone could provide advanced body suits for disabled individuals who require joint or limb support for mobility.  Matt may claim that this is yet another way that technology is going to affect human evolution How Technology May Be Influencing Human Evolution How Technology May Be Influencing Human Evolution There's not a single aspect of the human experience that hasn't been touched by technology, including our very bodies. Read More , but maybe in this case, that would be a good thing.

What do you think of this new technology? Can you think of any other cool, creative applications for it? Let’s brainstorm in the comments section below!

Image Credits: Hand in bandage Via Shutterstock, robotic arm Via Shutterstock, Di Studio via Shutterstock, andrea cristane via Shutterstock

  1. Tinkicker
    October 4, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Tony Stark did this 30 years ago.

    • Ryan Dube
      October 21, 2014 at 1:06 am

      Science Fiction meets reality. :-)

  2. Rafael Kireyev
    October 4, 2014 at 4:16 am

    This material is a storehouse of abundance for wearable devices. I, for example, would like to order a massage-shirt.

    • Ryan Dube
      October 21, 2014 at 1:26 am

      Better yet - massage pants!

    • Rafael Kireyev
      October 21, 2014 at 5:04 am

      Excuse me. It's just a typo.
      Ryan Dube
      To each his own.

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