Original article was published by Faisal Khan on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Scientists have created “Robotic Fabric” using functional fibers
The shape-shifting fabric can switch its shape and stiffness on demand
Shape-shifting robots have apparently become quite a thing in futuristic scientific research. Although the field of soft robotics is a novel one, researchers already envision multiple applications of this innovative tech. Last year, I wrote about how NASA plans to use this Shapeshifter concept in Robotics to send one to Titan — one of Saturn’s moons — to maneuver the difficult terrain with agility.
Also in the news, earlier this year was the soft robot developed by Stanford researchers, which can augment the human effort with their efficiency and offer safety coupled with a flexible design.
Now, researchers led by Prof. Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio have created a low-weight, flexible & breathable robotic fabric with a small storage footprint. The invention has the ability to go from flat, ordinary fabric to a standing, load-bearing structure.
“Our Field’s metal-epoxy composite can become as flexible as latex rubber or as stiff as hard acrylic, over 1,000 times more rigid, just by heating it up or cooling it down. Long fibers of this material can be sewn onto a fabric to give it a supportive skeleton that we can turn on and off.”
~ Trevor Buckner, Lead Author of the Paper
To give these capabilities to an ordinary fabric, the team used functional materials and converted them into fiber-form. This way, they were able to integrate them with the fabric flawlessly while keeping their advantageous properties.
The team used Field’s metal-epoxy composite, which can become as flexible as latex rubber or as stiff as a hard acrylic. Exposing the Field metal to a certain temperature can give it varying properties — it melts at a relatively low temperature of 62 °C (144 °F), making it soft and malleable, before cooling it off to room temperature to lock it into a certain shape.
Utilizing these properties, the team was able to develop a robotic fabric, which could not only change shape but also became a load-bearing material — holding up a 50-g (1.8-oz). The sensors that enabled the fabric to detect internal & external changes and respond accordingly were made from a conductive ink based on a Pickering emulsion. This non-toxic ink was used to paint the sensors directly onto the fabric.
To change the shape, the researchers used a shape-memory alloy (SMA), which can be programmed to remember a particular shape — like the fiber reverting to its original form after it has been deformed. SMA wires were flattened into ribbons, so they can return the fabric to the original flat shape.
The team believes this technology can be deployed to create self-deploying tents, robotic parachutes, and assistive clothing. The project was funded by U.S Air Force & the complete research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.