Researchers in Singapore have created a smart foam material that allows robots to sense surrounding objects and, like human skin, heals itself when injured.
Ai Foam, or artificially innervated foam, is a highly elastic polymer made by combining fluoropolymer with a surface tension-lowering chemical.
According to experts at the National University of Singapore, this allows the spongy material to easily fuse into one piece when sliced.
“There are numerous possibilities for such a material,” said lead researcher Benjamin Tee, “particularly in robotics and prosthetic devices, where robots need to be a lot more sophisticated while operating with humans.”
To replicate the human sense of touch, the researchers infused the material with microscopic metal particles and added tiny electrodes underneath the surface of the foam.
When pressure is applied, the metal particles draw closer within the polymer matrix, changing their electrical properties. These changes can be detected by the electrodes connected to a computer, which then tells the robot what to do, Tee said.
“You can see the sensor monitoring changes in my electrical field and responding to my touch when I move my finger near it,” he explained.
This capability allows the robotic hand to detect not only the amount of applied force, but also the direction in which it is delivered, possibly making robots more intelligent and engaging.
AiFoam is the first of its type, according to Tee, since it combines self-healing characteristics with proximity and pressure sensing. He and his colleagues plan to put the material to practical use within five years after spending more than two years creating it.
“It may also help prosthesis users to utilize their robotic arms more intuitively while grasping items,” he said.