Typically, robots are built to perform a single task. To make them more adaptable, researchers from Yale University have developed a kind of “robotic skin” that transforms ordinary objects into multifunctional robots.

It’s called OmniSkins, and it’s the brainchild of assistant professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio and her colleagues at Yale University. The neat thing about OmniSkins is its extreme versatility—it’s a general-purpose system with no specific task in mind. It enables otherwise inanimate objects to move, or provides an extra boost to robots or animals in need. Eventually, the electric skin could be used to create more effective search-and-rescue robots, enable locomotion in everyday objects, and improve wearable or assistive devices. A report on the OmniSkins project, which was primarily funded by a NASA research grant, was published today in Science Robotics.

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Kramer-Bottiglio came up with the idea a few years ago when NASA asked developers to make better and more versatile soft robotic systems. For NASA, the need for this kind of tech is obvious. Astronauts could use OmniSkins, or something like it, to adapt and reuse tools onboard the International Space Station. A robotic arm, for example, could be made from a piece of foam. More conceptually, the system could be used to create a soft, ball-shaped Mars rover capable of rolling and bouncing over the Red Planet’s difficult terrain.

A stuffed animal “roboticized” by the placement of OmniSkins.
GIF: Booth et al., Sci. Robot. 3, eaat1853 2018/Gizmodo

OmniSkins is made from elastic sheets embedded with sensors and actuators. The flexible sheets can be wrapped or affixed to a soft, malleable surface, such as a stuffed animal or a foam tube. The skins then “animate” these objects by applying force to their surface, leading to distinct movements.

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“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,” said Kramer-Bottiglio in a statement. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

The robotic skin not only initiates movement, it can also sense the “pushback” from an object to help the system know how much force is needed to generate movement. The motion achieved by an object “depends on the relationship between the dimensions, material properties, and force capabilities of the skin and the dimensions and stiffness characteristics of the body,” the authors write in the study. The robots can be controlled remotely by an operator or by using built-in light sensors.

In tests, the system allowed a stuffed toy horse to walk on all four legs, and a foam cylinder to move like an inchworm. It was also used to create a gripper capable of grabbing and moving objects, and a wearable device that, when worn as a t-shirt, corrects poor posture.

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As noted, the strength of this tech lies in its versatility, as most robotic systems are typically single purpose in scope. With these robotic skins, however, one could potentially create all sorts of different robots, and even alter their functions on the fly. Multiple skins could be applied to the same object, expanding functionality even further by allowing for more complex movements. The system is lightweight, easily transported, and can be used on a wide variety of materials. In fact, the researchers say OmniSkins could even be used on crumpled balls of paper and balloons.

Looking ahead, the team would like to streamline the system even further, and possibly manufacture parts using a 3D printer.

OmniSkins is a super cool idea, but suddenly the inanimate objects strewn around my house seem a bit more threatening than usual.

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[Science Robotics]