Skip to main content

Soft robot skin could be a major boost for future space missions

When people think of robots they generally imagine a gun-toting cyborg or a benign helper-robot, not a piece of cloth wrapped around a lump of foam.

However, researchers at Purdue University have demonstrated that the future of robotics comes in all shapes and sizes, by developing a robotic fabric.

Read more: Harvard's homebrew robot wars: University offers free toolkit to budding roboteers (opens in new tab)

The team hopes that the technology will enable them to make "soft" robots out of foam and other lightweight materials. The fabric is embedded with a flexible polymer that changes shape and rigidity when heated, allowing it to be contracted or relaxed at will.

When this fabric is wrapped around a malleable material such as foam, it can be made to bend and move in specific ways.

One of the researchers at the university, Rebecca Kramer, said that the technology could ultimately allow robots to be created quickly and with little difficulty.

"We will be able to design robots on the fly. Anything can be a robot because all of the robotic technology is in the fabric or skin."

Ultimately, the material could be used on space missions, allowing astronauts to transport lightweight, easy-to-store sheets of robotic skin before assembling the robot once they reach their destination.

The university's research is actually connected to work Kramer did through a NASA Early Career Faculty award based around elastic skins for soft robots.

Read more: MIT develops soft robot 'tentacle' (opens in new tab)

However, the team already has other plans for the technology that extend beyond robotics. It is hoped that the fabric could eventually be used to create strength-enhancing clothing or medical braces that offer patients added support.

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.