Soft, illuminating skin could stretch boundaries of robotics

Cornell University researchers create tech that could be used in robots, cars, wearables

stretchable skin
Chris Larson, Cornell University

Researchers have developed a robotic skin that can stretch to six times its original size, light up and even change color.

Scientists at Cornell University, where the work on the soft skin is being done, said the technology could lead to significant advances in health care, transportation and communications.

"This material can stretch with the body of a soft robot, and that's what our group does," Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, said in a statement. "It allows robots to change their color and it also allows displays to change their shape."

The hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitor, or HLEC, is designed to handle more than twice the strain of previously stretchable skin or displays. It's made up of multiple layers of transparent hydrogel electrodes that sandwich an insulating elastomer sheet.

It's the elastomer, which is a rubber, that has the ability to store an electrical charge when stretched, twisted or rolled. It also can illuminate.

Cornell reported that the scientific team working on the project took six of the HLECs and created a soft robot. By inflating and deflating the chambers of the robot, they were able to create a walking motion.

"We can take these pixels that change color and put them on these robots, and now we have the ability to change their color," Shepherd said. "Why is that important? For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have emotional connection with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions."

The HLEC skin could be used in a healthcare or home care robot that would change colors based on a patient's medical condition or needs. The robot also could display the patient's vital signs and change colors to sooth someone in pain or a bad mood.

The development is significant; Juniper Research reported late last year that at least one in 10 U.S. homes is expected to have a consumer robot by 2020.

Soft robots have been taking steps forward - literally.

In September 2014, Harvard University announced that scientists had built a four-legged soft robot that could stand up and walk away from the people who built it. Researchers said at the time that they hoped the robot could be used in search and rescue situations, squeezing through tight spaces and transmitting information about victims.

Cornell noted that its stretchable skin could be used for more than just soft robots. It could, for instance, be used in a vehicle, where the technology could be an information display that can change based on the driver's needs.

It also could be used to create wearables that actually conform to a person's body, such as a smart watch or fitness tracker that's soft and stretchable.

"You could have a rubber band that goes around your arm that also displays information," said Chris Larson, a Cornell graduate student working on the project. "You could be in a meeting and have a rubber band-like device on your arm and could be checking your email. That's obviously in the future, but that's the direction we're looking in."

This story, "Soft, illuminating skin could stretch boundaries of robotics" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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