Tech Briefs

Super stretchy ‘skin’ could create mood-enhancing robots.

A team of Cornell University graduate engineering students say that they envision a future where a healthcare robot could display a patient’s temperature and pulse, and then read and react to a patient’s mood. Their research was published in the journal, Science.

Fig. 1 – These are multi-pixel electroluminescent displays fabricated via replica molding. The device measures 5 mm thick, with each of the 64 pixels measuring 4 mm. It can be deformed and stretched in various ways. (Credit: Science, Organic Robotics Lab at Cornell University)

The group, led by Rob Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has developed an electroluminescent “skin” that can stretch to more than six times its original size while still emitting light. The discovery, they say, could lead to significant advances in healthcare, transportation, electronic communication, and other areas.

How It Works

“This material can stretch with the body of a soft robot, and that’s what our group does,” Shepherd said. He explained that the material has two key properties. “It allows robots to change their color, and it also allows displays to change their shape.”

The material, called a hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitor (HLEC), can endure more than twice the strain of previously tested stretchable displays. It consists of layers of transparent hydrogel electrodes sandwiching an insulating elastomer sheet. The elastomer changes luminance and capacitance when stretched, rolled, and otherwise deformed. (See Figure 1)

“We can take these pixels that change color and put them on these robots, and now we have the ability to change their color,” Shepherd said. “Why is that important? For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have emotional connection with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions.”

In addition to its ability to emit light under a strain of greater than 480 percent its original size, the group’s HLEC was shown to be capable of being integrated into a soft robotic system. Three six-layer HLEC panels were bound together to form a crawling soft robot, with the top four layers making up the light-up skin and the bottom two the pneumatic actuators.

The soft robot’s chambers were alternately inflated and deflated, with the resulting curvature creating an undulating, “walking” motion.

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