Today’s Featured Article is on some interesting developments in robotics, rather soft robotics. What’s the big deal with soft robotics, though? I grew up on mecha (well, not literally – I’d think I’d be an ace pilot and a science blogger besides, but still), and I’m not too far removed from other notions of robotic movement, such as the movements of RoboCop as well as whatever this is. It’s not exactly smooth, more like hydraulics being set off in order, it’s not very fluid, it’s…well, just robotic. That’s why with the rise of 3D printing, one can start thinking about material that can actually act like human muscle. Kind of like the opening sequence of Westworld. There IS one issue that needs to be addressed beyond smooth movement – if this is going to replace muscle, then it’s not just flexible cables. These cables need to be able to act as sensors too, just like real human muscle.
That’s why the Word of the Day (maybe I should start having one) is ‘textuators’ which, according to the authors of this week’s Featured Article, is short for ‘textile actuator’ and not, as one would think (well, me anyway) one of those things on a phone where you type one thing as a shortcut for an entire phrase, like whenever you type ‘yeah’ it comes out as ‘SO IT HAS COME TO THIS…’ because you left your phone on, and your friends are jerks. I would never do that, mind; I’ve got Star Wars quotes for that.
Actuators require a signal and a source of power, much like actual muscle. What the authors want to do is weave (if you knit, now you know why the title is the way it is) together some materials so that they could be stretched, bent, whatever. Of course, with the rise of 3D printing and a whole lot of materials research, flexible circuitry is feasible. These methods also need to be easily reproducible for manufacturing. The authors feel that this could be used to create ‘exoskeleton-like suits with integrated wearable actuators.’ I’m thinking haptic suits from Ready Player One where you can feel what’s happening in virtual reality, but please note that I’m a sci-fi nerd.
The authors suggest weaving or knitting ‘yarns’ made of cellulose coated with conducting material, not unlike putting dyes on fabric. To test that this material can actually work, they put it through a series of reliability tests. After all, no use proposing a new technique that doesn’t work or new electronics that fail so soon. So how reliable were these textuators? Naturally, the more yarn used, the stronger the textuator, which is good for repeated use in the sense that sending electric signals to it causes it to change shape or stiffness (hey, again, like real muscle). Of course, there is the issue of this being wet because of using electrolytes, which is good for the lab but not for, say, the tropics or the gym.; it’s an issue I’ve brought up before (here too). The authors do mention that they’re working on textuators that “operate in air” so we won’t have the problem of sudden massive shocks from the beads of sweat running down your neck and back from really intense VR. Well, serves you right for digging right below your feet in Minecraft, now you’re up to your neck in lava.
And now your haptic suit went berserk.
[A NOTE FROM JONNY] I’ve been out of blogging for a month, but there’s a story behind it. At least there’s a happy ending involved where I got hired to go off and become an Assistant Professor. The sequel involves finding a new coffee house to call a base of operations, but hey. Good way to start Season 2 if I had a Season 1.
Featured Article: Maziz A, Concas A, Khaldi A, Stålhand J, Persson NK, Jager EWH. (2017) Knitting and weaving artificial muscles. Sci. Adv. 3(1) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600327