Soft Robots of the Future May Depend on New Materials that Conduct Electricity, Sense Damage and Self-Heal

Soft Robots of the Future May Depend on New Materials that Conduct Electricity, Sense Damage and Self-Heal

Michael Ford

Security, Americas

Interactions between people and machines continue to increase. 

Robots used to be restricted to heavy lifting or fine detail work in factories. Now Boston Dynamics’ nimble four-legged robot, Spot, is available for companies to lease to carry out various real-world jobs, a sign of just how common interactions between humans and machines have become in recent years.

And while Spot is versatile and robust, it’s what society thinks of as a traditional robot, a mix of metal and hard plastic. Many researchers are convinced that soft robots capable of safe physical interaction with people – for example, providing in-home assistance by gripping and moving objects – will join hard robots to populate the future.

Soft robotics and wearable computers, both technologies that are safe for human interaction, will demand new types of materials that are soft and stretchable and perform a wide variety of functions. My colleagues and I at the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University develop these multifunctional materials. Along with collaborators, we’ve recently developed one such material that uniquely combines the properties of metals, soft rubbers and shape memory materials.

These soft multifunctional materials, as we call them, conduct electricity, detect damage and heal themselves. They also can sense touch and change their shape and stiffness in response to electrical stimulation, like an artificial muscle. In many ways, it’s what the pioneering researchers Kaushik Bhattacharya and Richard James described: “the material is the machine.”

Making Materials Intelligent

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