New Fabric Could Turn All Our Clothes Into Robots

That robot looks great on you.

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Sep 24 2014, 7:00pm

Image: Rebecca Kramer

The popularity of wearable technology like bracelets that can sense your heart rate has exploded recently, which has so far resulted in a new class of oblivious techno-frat boys with money to burn on nerdy accessories (and, uhh, the Apple Watch). Now, a team of researchers have done these types one better by creating a new smart fabric that could one day let you wear an actual robot.

Most wearable fabrics and devices are packed with sensors that can do things like get you off and tell how much exercise you're getting by measuring the amount of lactate in your sweat. As smart as these pieces of tech are, they don't have the capability to actually move. Why would you want your smart tech to move? 

Well, for one, you could turn anything into a robot, including clothes.

This stuff already looks like a scarf. Image: Rebecca Kramer

Taking a tip from the burgeoning soft robotics movement, a team of researchers from Purdue University sewed heat sensors in the form of fibrous shape-memory polymers that soften once heated by an electrical current into a cotton fabric. The end result is a smart fabric that can be draped around any malleable object to make it into a robot that can stiffen up, soften, and move on command with snake or worm-like movements.

"We will be able to design robots on the fly," Rebecca Kramer, one of the scientists who designed the robots, said in a Perdue University statement. "Anything can be a robot because all of the robotic technology is in the fabric or skin." 

This includes future clothing, the researchers wrote in two papers that outlined their approach, which they presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last week.

The smart fabric wrapped around a block of foam. Image: Rebecca Kramer

Wearable robots could help in the medical realm and could also be used in aviation, according to the researchers. 

Robot fabrics with controllable stiffness could be used as joint stability braces. When a broken finger, for example, needs to stay put, the fabric could be made stiff. When it's time for the joint to move around a little, an electrical current could be shot through the fabric, making it pliable once more. More speculatively perhaps, the researchers also envision soft, wearable exoskeletons made of the material.

"To assist motion of a human wearer, fabrics that span articulated joints could generate additional bending moments beyond what a human achieves with his or her own muscles," the researchers wrote. "Such robotic fabrics spanning across a human joint would act like an additional thin layer of muscle on top of the musculoskeletal complex of the joint."

Robots in the form of cotton fabric could also have potential applications in space. Kramer is working on a project for NASA, funded by the organization's Early Career Faculty award

The same on the fly robot-building advantages of wearable robots on earth would presumably apply in space, meaning that astronauts could bring sheets of robotic fabric into space, ready to be assembled into any formation they need.

Soft robots are still pretty weird and kind of gross—I mean, this one moves like a worm—but nonetheless they're quickly becoming a promising avenue of robotics research. 

The idea of a robot insurrection while you're wearing one of these things certainly is a bit unnerving: Imagine your robotic scarf slowly tightening around your neck. Yikes.

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