A plane capable of stealthily morphing into a submersible may seem like a wannabee secret agent’s dream. In reality, such a craft would need malleable wings that bend back so they don’t break upon hitting the water’s surface, according to Cornell University engineers. And how do you achieve that? Extremely pliable metal.
Prof. Rob Shepherd, of Cornell, and his research group have designed a metal-foam hybrid that boasts that desired trait.
“Sometimes you want a robot, or any machine, to be stiff,” said Shepherd in a prepared statement. “But when you make them stiff, they can’t morph their shape very well. And to give a soft robot both capabilities, to be able to morph their structure but also be stiff and bear load, that’s what this material does.”
Advanced Materials published a study on the metal-foam hybrid this month. The research was partially funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Shepherd is no stranger to the world of soft robots. Earlier this month, he made headlines after his research regarding stretchy luminescent skin for soft robots was published in Science.
The new material is comprised of a soft alloy called Field’s metal, known for its low melting point at 144 F, and porous silicone foam. After dipping the foam in the molten metal, it’s exposed to a vacuum in order to suck the air from the pores. The alloy then takes the place of the air.
In a video, the researchers successfully show the materials ability to change shape and weld together. It’s all very “Transformers”-esque.
Above 144 F, the material deformed but regained rigidity when cooled. Additionally, the Field’s metal soft alloy contains no lead and is biocompatible.
In the soft robotics realm, flexibility is the name of the game.
“It could be used in search-and-rescue robots,” said Ilse Van Meerbeek, a graduate student and the paper’s first author, in a statement. “It would be able to go into dangerous and/or unpredictable environments, and be able to go through narrow cracks, which rigid robots can’t do.”
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