Researchers at Cornell University have developed an electronic artificial skin that doesn’t mind being stretched to 500% its original size (cell phone), glows in the dark and can move a bit like a worm.
Artificial skin has octopus qualities
In a paper published yesterday in the journal Science, a team of researchers showed off glowing electric skin that could be put to use in future wearables. While artificial skin that responds to commands has been done before, electronics embedded in the skin have generally broken when stretched. However, the team seems to have leaped over this hurdle by using hyperelastic, light-emitting capacitor (HLEC) technology.
“It’s actually much, much, much more stretchable than human skin or octopus skin,” says Chris Larson, a doctoral candidate and researcher in Cornell’s Organic Robotics Lab. “In terms of texture, it’s actually more like a rubber band or a balloon.”
While Larson freely admits that he doesn’t know much about cephalopods, the team was inspired by biology, specifically, the octopus beak with its ability to both move and stretch.
“The researchers created a three-chamber robot from the material, with the newly developed ‘skin’ layers on top, and inflatable layers below that allow movement,” according to a release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “As the chambers expand linearly, the robot moves forward with a worm-like wiggle.”
While a cell-phone size piece of “skin” is a long ways from a robot, the potential is fantastic. We live in a world that is changing so fast that groundbreaking work quickly translates into further advancements and ultimately practical application and the time in which discovery becomes common place is no longer a matter of decades but sometimes just years.
Soft robots and wearable tech applications
Engineers have taken a fancy to soft robots in the last half decade as their bending nature and soft feel would make them ideal in emergency situations as they could squeeze into tight spaces considerably easier than their rigid brethren, stiff, inflexible robots as we know them. Sticking with rescue robots, they would also be less likely to hurt the person they were rescuing with their soft skin and lack of hard edges. There are also suggestions that soft robots would be a much safer alternative as a robotic surgical tool.
“We can take these pixels that change color and put them on these robots, and now we have the ability to change their color,” said Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, in a press release. “Why is that important? For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have 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.”
Obviously, the wearable market holds lots of potential for the invention/discovery as well.
“We actually made two things here, we made soft robots that can change their color and display information, and we made a display that can change its shape,” said Shepard.
In theory, a car’s touchscreen could change dramatically and the team has already been in conversation with automakers at a very preliminary level.
“Imagine having a volume control knob that pops up when you need it and then goes away,” he said.