Picture a robot in your mind. What you’re imagining is most likely something like Honda’s ASIMO humanoid robot, or a big industrial robot arm in an assembly plant. Or, maybe you’re just thinking about Rosie from The Jetsons. All of those robots have one thing in common: they were designed “top-down” with an ultimate purpose in mind. But, some situations require more flexibility, and that’s why Yale researchers developed these robotic skins that can be used to turn anything into a robot on the fly.
Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, along with a team in her Yale lab, designed the robotic skin for NASA. Sending even a small amount of mass into space is very expensive — currently about $10,000 for every pound of payload carried into Earth’s orbit. Multiple single-purpose robots are, therefore, wildly impractical, and NASA needs an alternative that can be repurposed between projects. These robotic skins are the perfect solution, and can be used to convert everyday objects into robots.
Each robotic skin is constructed from an elastic sheet, and embedded with sensors and actuators. When the skins are placed on an object they provide mechanical motion and the sensor data necessary to control that motion. As Kramer-Bottiglio demonstrates, the skins can be applied to a stuffed animal to create a walking robot, or to a shirt to gather posture data and implement haptic feedback to notify the wearer when to stop slouching. Those demonstrations are illuminating, but the real power of the robotic skins is versatility. They’d allow NASA to transport a relatively small payload that could be used in a wide range of scenarios.