Everyday Objects Become Robots with Sensor-embedded Technology

James Marshall
September 23, 2018

Typically, robots are built to perform a single task.

New "Robotic Skins" technology developed by Yale researchers allows users to turn everyday objects into robots. Kramer-Bottiglio is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Yale's School of Engineering & Applied Science. The neat thing about OmniSkins is its extreme versatility-it's a general-purpose system with no specific task in mind. Don't worry, this is not your worst nightmare coming true, as you will have full control over the objects.

The skins were developed with no specific objective in mind but the possibilities are wide ranging, from search-and-rescue robots to wearable technologies. The team published their work on this robotic skin in Science Robotics.

A few years ago, NASA put out a call for soft robotic systems. For NASA, the need for this kind of tech is obvious. That makes for a wide application of uses, without the huge investment necessary to create such a robot from scratch.

For example, with the robotic skins, engineers can make a robotic arm out of a piece of foam. They can then remove it and apply it to create a soft Mars rover that can roll over the Red Planet's rough terrain.

A stuffed animal "roboticised" by the placement of OmniSkins.

None of the materials or actuators - the components that make the skin move - are new, she added.

She wants to extend the concept of robotic skins from being applied to deformable objects - like a foam tube - to mouldable objects, such as clay.

"We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task - locomotion, for example - and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object", Kramer-Bottiglio said in a statement. The robots can be controlled remotely by an operator or by using built-in light sensors. Wrap the sheets around pretty much anything flexible - such as the stuffed horse in the video - and you can program it to move. These include foam cylinders that move like an inchworm, a shirt-like wearable device created to correct poor posture, and a device with a gripper that can grasp and move objects.

While you might lose some quality in performance - for instance, a robot built only for picking fruit may be better at the job than one only adapted for that goal - he suggested the flexibility of these skins is their real benefit.

"We're now working on morphing robots - treating the robotic skins as surface-based sculptors of the underlying material to achieve shape-changing capabilities", Dr Kramer-Bottiglio said.

Additionally, using more than one skin at a time allows for more complex movements.

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