Among 3D printing’s many applications, the technology often crosses over into the field of robotics, including soft robotics. Soft robotics is a field that has been changing the way people look at robots, taking them from rigid metal creations to something much more fluid and flexible. Applications include synthetic muscle, prosthetics, search and rescue tools, and more. Now researchers at Yale University are creating soft robots from everyday objects.

The researchers created “skins” by embedding sensors and remotely operated actuators into elastic sheets. When those skins were wrapped around objects, the objects could move, grasp, and even walk. A stuffed horse was able to move its legs when wrapped with the sheets, and a foam tube was able to squirm. The research is described in a paper entitled “OmniSkins: Robotic skins that turn inanimate objects into multifunctional robots.

Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and leader of the research, said that the sheets could be used to create improvised robots that could be used in disaster situations, for example.

“A designer could quickly construct a robot using the robotic skins wrapped around whatever deformable materials they have access to and stick a camera on it, and then deploy the robot for exploration of small or dangerous spaces,” she said. “Robotic skins can be applied to, removed from, and transferred between different objects, and used in combination to create many different configurations to perform many different tasks.”

Kramer-Bottiglio and her colleagues plan to use 3D printing to build additional components for testing the robotic sheets, as well as creating clay structures that can morph into different shapes.

“I’m really excited to see what other people will do with robotic skins,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “The possibilities are endless.”

The field of soft robotics encompasses a wide variety of production techniques, although 3D printing has been one of the most common methods of fabricating them. Soft robotics has the potential to eliminate many components from traditional robots, doing away with circuits and other clunky parts in favor of actuation by light or chemical reaction. With this new way of looking at robots, they can be made and activated more easily, and used in situations that involve small or unknown spaces.

“This is a very exciting study that demonstrates the versatility and adaptability of soft robotics,” said Conor Walsh, an Associate Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. “The idea that we can have a soft and flexible sheet, wrap it around any surface, have it learn what it is attached to and then move it in some desired way has lot of potential.”

Soft robots can be made out any number of flexible materials, but the researchers’ idea is novel in that it can transform ordinary objects into robots just by wrapping them in fabric. As Kramer-Bottiglio pointed out, this means that in an emergency situation, any flexible item that happened to be at hand could be quickly turned into a search and rescue bot – or, in a less urgent situation, kids could turn their favorite stuffed animals into companions that could move around the house. Whether that’s fun or creepy is a matter of opinion, but it’s hard to argue against this new method of robot creation as being potentially very useful in the future.

Authors of the paper include Joran W. Booth, Dylan Shah, Jennifer C. Case, Edward L. White, Michelle C. Yuen, Olivier C. Choiniere and Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio.

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