The typical robot is a rigid thing. Think of Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot, or the quadcopter designed to fight fires. Not exactly the most flexible devices. But roboticists have been pushing in a new direction. Soft robotics are receiving a lot of attention. Taking cues from cephalopods, some of these devices showcase more dexterity and maneuverability than their rigid counterparts.
Now, researchers from Cornell Univ. have developed a stretchy skin capable of changing color. The research was published in Science last week.
According to Prof. Robert Shepherd, who teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering, the skin allows soft robots to change color and stretch to more than six times their size.
The hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitor (HLEC) is made of layer of transparent hydrogel electrodes, with a dielectric elastomer sheet set in between. “The elastomer changes luminance and capacities (the ability to store an electrical charge) when stretched, rolled, and otherwise deformed,” according to Cornell Univ.
“Why is this important?” Shepherd mused in a statement. “For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have (an) emotional connection with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions.”
The researchers integrated the skin into a robotic system, proving it could work in motion. As the soft robot undulated, its three segments (HLEC panels) changed in color. The undulating motion allowed the robot to move forward like a worm.
Shepherd believes the stretchy luminescent skin could be used to make currently hard electronics, like the Apple Watch and Fitbit, soft, allowing them to fit more snuggly on the wearer.
The research was funded through a grant from the Army Research Office, an award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and two grants from the National Science Foundation.