SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Researchers in Singapore have developed a smart foam that allows robots to sense nearby objects and repair themselves when damaged, just like human skin.
Industrially bonded foam, or AiFoam, is a highly elastic polymer created by mixing a fluoropolymer with a compound that reduces surface tension.
This allows the spongy material to easily coalesce into one piece when cut, according to researchers at the National University of Singapore.
“There are many applications for such materials, especially in robotics and prosthetic devices, where robots need to be much smarter when working with humans,” explained lead researcher Benjamin T.
To replicate a human’s sense of touch, the researchers infused the material with microscopic metal particles and added tiny electrodes under the foam’s surface.
When pressure is applied, the metal particles within the polymer matrix get close, changing their electrical properties. These changes can be detected by electrodes attached to a computer, T said, which then tells the robot what to do.
“When I move my finger close to the sensor, you can see that the sensor is measuring changes in the electric field and responding accordingly to my touch,” he said.
This feature enables the robotic hand to detect not only the amount of force applied but also its direction, making the robots more intelligent and interactive.
Tee said AiFoam is the first of its kind to combine self-healing, proximity sensing and pressure properties. Having spent more than two years developing it, he and his team hope the materials will be in practical use within five years.
“It could also allow prosthetic users to use their robotic arms more easily when holding objects,” he said.
(Reporting by Li Yingshan and Travis Teo) Writing by Xu Xiao. Editing by Karishma Singh and Stephen Coates
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