When we think of robots, most of us think of metal contraptions that move while making clunking noises. While many of the sophisticated robots being made now are heavier metal creations, the future of robotics lies in soft robots.
Soft robots are those that are capable of safe physical interaction. In an article in the The Conversation,Postdoctoral Research Associate in Materials Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, explains that the Soft Machines Lab at the university are developing the new materials needed for these kinds of robots and wearable computers.
These materials need to be soft, stretchable, be able to conduct electricity, detect damage and heal themselves.
To make it possible for these materials to perform the services researchers hope they will in the future, the material will need to be built around the concept of embodied intelligence. Embodied intelligence refers to materials that contain the understanding of their purpose within themselves. Ford gives the example of a rubber band.
“At the molecular level, rubber contains strings of molecules that are coiled up and linked together. Stretching or compressing rubber moves and uncoils the strings, but their links force the rubber to bounce back to its original position without permanently deforming. The ability for rubber to ‘know’ its original shape is contained within the material structure,” writes Ford.
Ford and his team have created self-healing circuits embedded in rubber. The addition of micro-scale liquid metal droplets wrapped in an electrically insulating “skin” to silicone rubber, resulted in a rubber that was self-healing when it was subjected to enough force.
“The combination of liquid metal and rubber gave the material a new route to sense and process its environment – that is, a new form of embodied intelligence. The rearrangement of the liquid metal allows the material to ‘know’ when damage has occurred because of an electrical response,” writes Ford.
Other breakthroughs in soft robotics include a step towards the improvement of prosthetics. Researchers at the University of Houston designed a robotic device containing a stretchable transistor that allows neurological function. The work, which has artificial synaptic transistors which function similarly to neurons, has the robot sensing physical touch, short and long term memory.
“When human skin is touched, you feel it,” Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Houston told Science Daily to describe the human capabilities the new device can mimic. “The feeling originates in your brain, through neural pathways from your skin to the brain.”
This kind of device could help with prosthetics by making them able to connect with peripheral nerves in human tissue, giving the artificial limb some neurological function.