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This ‘robotic skin’ can bring your stuffed toys to life

The Verge logo The Verge 9/24/2018 James Vincent
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When designing tools for use in space, versatility is important. Each pound of material you bring with you is going to cost extra, so having one tool that can do multiple jobs is handy. Plus: it’s space! You never know what situations you’re going to come across. These demands inspired Yale roboticist Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio and her team to develop what is basically robotic skin — a flexible material that can animate any inanimate object.

The material’s proper name is OmniSkin, and it’s made from sheets of elastic studded with sensors and actuators. It can be fixed in place with zips or other basic ties, and it’s modular, meaning each small sheet can be attached to any other in a number of ways. “[They’re] like Legos,” Kramer-Bottiglio told Smithsonian.com. “They can be combined, separated, and re-combined in different patterns.”

Kramer-Bottiglio and the rest of her team at Yale describe OmniSkin in a paper published last week in Science Robotics. They show how the material can be put to a number of uses: turning foam arms into a robotic grabbing claw, constructing free-standing objects, and augmenting human clothing. They even used it to make a stuffed toy walk, wrapping sheets of OmniSkin around a toy horse’s legs to make it jitter across a tabletop.

Obviously this sort of material doesn’t match up to regular robotics when it comes to attributes like power and durability. You couldn’t build a Mars rover out of OmniSkin, for example. But the design was inspired by a solicitation from NASA, which was looking for new soft robotics that might be useful in space. That’s why OmniSkin is lightweight and reusable. Astronauts can’t plan for every event, so having adaptable tools is important.

© Credit: Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio / Yale University

“Future astronauts exploring another planet could quickly construct a robot using the robotic skins wrapped around whatever deformable materials they have access to and stick a camera on it, and then deploy the robot for exploration of small or dangerous spaces,” said Kramer-Bottiglio.

Other solutions are also being developed in this area such as the Super Ball Bot; a NASA project to built a lightweight robot from connected poles and wires. It looks like a tangled mess, but the resulting object is resilient enough to be fired at a planet’s surface without damage, and then flexible enough to navigate over the rocky terrain. OmniSkin could have similar uses in the future. It turns that building tools to meet the unexpected demands of space means coming up with equally unexpected designs.

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