Wearable robot-skin could be warn by drones (Wired UK)

Fashion, circa 2050
Fashion, circa 2050Shutterstock

Mechanical engineers have
been using sensors, thread-like actuators and traditional sewing
techniques to build robotic fabric that can reconfigure your
clothing on the go. Well, that’s one option. But the team of
doctoral students at Purdue has initially developed it to act as a
robot skin for our mechanical friends to
help us explore alien landscapes, or for astronauts to don.

The team presented the material at the International Conference
on Intelligent Robots and Systems held in Chicago this month,
having followed up on a Nasa Early Career
Faculty award announced in July for “active elastic skins for soft

Purdue University photo/Rebecca Kramer

For astronauts, this kind of future material would make space
travel a more comfortable — and safe — affair. Elastic material
would provide reinforcement and added strength at the joints, and
protect against degradation from g-force, the team argues. If the
second skin were fitted with sensors, the
material could potentially alert the wearer to any changes in
physiology that need immediate medical attention, to avoid illness,
or to important but subtle changes in the local environment. On top
of this, the lightweight material means suits could be shipped in
larger quantities for long term space travellers that will need a
change of outfit, or for their robot friends instructed to go out

Flexible space suits are vital for future long-term space
travel, and a few are in development already. MIT aerospace
Dava Newman is building a BioSuit that uses nickel
titanium shape-memory alloys to remain flexible while exerting the
same pressures on the body as the Earth’s atmosphere would.
Meanwhile, a joint team from MIT, King’s College London and the
European Space Agency has been working on a Gravity Loading
Countermeasure suit. As we prepare for longterm space travel and
one-way missions to Mars, a space suit that can help counteract the
negative impact of zero-gravity on the body (including bone density
reduction) is paramount.

The Purdue team is going a step further and fitting the
malleable outfits with sensors and actuators to allow for
“muscle-like” movement and feedback on the environment. The
material itself is made of cotton, but the sensors are made using
flexible polymers and thin strands of a shape-memory alloy, sewn
in. When these are heated, they shift into a coil and in doing so
alter the shape of the fabric — the reconfigurable part. This way
the fabric can be modified in different ways, depending on the
use-case. The fabric, when set in motion, can change length by 60
percent when constrained.

Rebecca Kramer, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at
Purdue University, explains how the material could be wrapped
around anything or applied to any autonomous vehicle to turn it
into a superior robotic helper. “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.”

This is all well and good for astronauts and robots, but here on
Earth the material could feasibly be integrated into suits for
ordinary people — particularly anyone that needs mobility
assistance. Darpa has recently poured £1.8
million of funding into the development of the Soft Exosuit, which mimics the body’s own
muscle-movement to provide the support of an exoskeleton, without
the bulk. These kinds of technologies could be incorporated to help
those less able to walk, including the elderly.

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25 September 2014 | 9:22 am – Source: wired.co.uk


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