A team of researchers a the University of Toronto have unveiled a new electrothermally controlled soft robot that they say could one day change the way humans and robots interact in the manufacturing environment. The team, led by Professor Hani Naguib, conducts research that is primarily focused on smart materials, of which electrothermal actuators, or ETAs for short, are a major focus. ETAs are devices that are constructed from special polymers that are able to be “programmed” to respond to changes in temperature or electrical signals.
In a recently published paper, the team details their work in developing a soft robot that utilizes ETA for locomotion and demonstrated a small soft robot that moves like an inchworm across a surface or curl up based on electrical stimuli. Naguib says that he can see this technology replacing the bulky, metal-plated robots often found in manufacturing facilities, which would create a better human/robot coexistence in the workplace.
While materials that respond to thermal and electrical stimuli have been researched for decades, this new discovery by Naguib and his team is unique because they are able to program specific reactions in the material when a stimulus is encountered. “Existing research documents the programming of ETAs from a flat resting state. The shape-programmability of a two-dimensional structure is limited, so the response is just a bending motion,” explains Yu-Chen (Gary) Sun (MIE PhD candidate), the paper’s lead author. “What’s also novel is the power required to induce the inchworm motion. Ours is more efficient than anything that has existed in research literature so far,” he continued.
PhD candidate Yu-Chen (Gary) Sun and Professor Hani Naguib are designing soft robots and wearable devices with smart materials that physically respond to electo-thermal changes in the environment. Credit: University of Toronto
“Right now, the robots you’ll find in industry are heavy, solid and caged off from workers on the factory floor, because they pose safety hazards,” explains Naguib, director of the Toronto Institute of Advanced Manufacturing, and the manufacturing robotics lead of U of T’s Robotics Institute. But the manufacturing industry is modernizing to meet demand. More and more, there’s an emphasis on incorporating human-robot interactions,” he adds. “Soft, adaptable robots can leverage that collaboration.”
The ability for a material to react in a very specific way to a thermal or electrical stimulus opens the doors for massive advancements in everything from robotics to medicine, space travel to deep-sea exploration, and so much more. It would be quite easy to see passive cooling technologies for remote electronics to utilize this technology to prevent overheating or any number of applications where a specific movement needs to happen when the correct stimulus is present.
“In situations where humans could be in danger — a gas leak or a fire — we could outfit a crawling robot with a sensor to measure the harmful environment,” explains Naguib. “In aerospace, we could see smart materials being the key to next-generation aircraft with wings that morph.”
Naguib and his team are currently focusing on adapting this technology to garments designed for athletes. Imagine a shirt that would expand holes around specific areas to help cool a runner after reaching a specific body temperature during a marathon or even tiny air vents that might open in the helmet of a US Football player during a particularly intense play.
“We’re working to apply this material to garments. These garments would compress or release based on body temperature, which could be therapeutic to athletes,” says Naguib. The team is also studying whether smart garments could be beneficial for spinal cord injuries.
“In this case, we’ve trained it to move like a worm,” he says. “But our innovative approach means we could train robots to mimic many movements — like the wings of a butterfly.”