A recent advancement in softbotics could fundamentally alter robotics, electronics, and medicine. For the first time, a soft material with conductivity similar to metal and self-healing capabilities has been developed and is thought to be able to sustain power-hungry devices.
Softbotics is about seamlessly integrating robotics into everyday life, putting humans at the center.
Carmel Majidi, Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Engineers are developing ways to incorporate robots into daily life. One day, for instance, patients could recuperate from surgery at home with the help of a wearable robot monitoring device.
Robots must be able to travel with humans, resist damage, and have electrical functioning without being enclosed in a rigid framework to be seamlessly integrated.
The development of these softbotics is based on Majidi’s material, a liquid metal-filled organogel composite with high electrical conductivity, low stiffness, great stretchability, and self-healing capabilities.
The material was used by the scientists in three distinct applications, including a robot that could withstand damage and was inspired by snails, a toy car’s modular power supply, and a bioelectrode that could be adjusted to measure muscle activity in various parts of the body.
The untethered snail robot moved using an electric motor and battery implanted in its soft exterior’s self-healing conductive material. The team cut the conductive material during the experiment and saw how it lost more than 50% of its speed.
When the material was physically rejoined, the robot’s self-healing abilities allowed it to regain its electrical connection and 68% of its initial speed.
Majidi added, “This is the first soft material that can maintain a high enough electrical conductivity to support digital electronics and power-hungry devices. We have demonstrated that you can actually power motors with it.”
Moreover, the material can function as a modular building block for reconfigurable circuits.
“In practice there will be cases where you want to reuse and recycle these gel-like electronics into different configurations, and our toy car demonstration shows that you can do that,” further added Majidi.
The toy car was first attached to a motor by a single gel piece. The team was able to repair the car’s connection to the motor by dividing that gel into three portions, each of which they linked to a roof-mounted LED.
The group also showed how the material could be rearranged to read electromyography (EMG) data from various body parts. The organogel can be modified to measure hand activity on the anterior forearm muscles and to the back of the leg to measure calf activity with its modular design. This opens the way to soft, reusable tissue-electronic interfaces like EMGs and EKGs.
Majidi further stated, “Instead of being wired up with biomonitoring electrodes connecting you to biomeasurement hardware mounted on a cart, our gel can be used as a bioelectrode that directly interfaces with body-mounted electronics that can collect information and transmit it wirelessly.”
In the future, Majidi aims to combine his study on artificial muscle with his work on artificial nerve tissue to create robots composed completely of soft, gel-like materials.
He concluded, “It would be interesting to see soft-bodied robots used for monitoring hard to reach places—whether that be a snail that could monitor water quality, or a slug that could crawl around our houses looking for mold.”
Engineering breakthrough in softbotics
Video Credit: Carnegie Mellon University