New ‘Robotic Skins’ Can Assist Astronauts in Mars Exploration

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Researchers have developed a new “robotic skins” technology that allows users to turn everyday objects into robots as well as help astronauts for Mars exploration where the environment is unpredictable.

The skins, developed and designed by researchers at the Yale University in partnership with NASA, could be used for everything from search-and-rescue robots to animate the inanimate everyday objects to wearable technologies.

The technology can also be reused to help astronauts accomplish an array of tasks with the same reconfigurable material.

The same skins used to make a robotic arm out of a piece of foam could be removed and applied to create a soft Mars rover that can roll over rough terrain.

With the robotic skins on board, anything from balloons to balls of crumpled paper could potentially be made into a robot with a purpose.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multifunctionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable,” said Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, Assistant Professor at the varsity.

The skins are made from elastic sheets embedded with sensors and actuators. They are placed on a deformable object – a stuffed animal or a foam tube, for instance – then the skins animate these objects from their surfaces.

The makeshift robots can perform different tasks depending on the properties of the soft objects and how the skins are applied.

“We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task – locomotion, for example – and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” Kramer-Bottiglio said.

“We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device,” she added.

The results are published in the journal Science Robotics.

To demonstrate the robotic skins in action, the team created a handful of prototypes. These include foam cylinders that move like an inchworm, a shirt-like wearable device designed to correct poor posture, and a device with a gripper that can grasp and move objects.

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