Scientists have developed a smart foam material that allows robots to detect nearby objects and repair itself when damaged, just like human skin. The researchers said the substance in question would bring great benefits to people using various prosthetic limbs.
Scientists from the National University of Singapore have created a self-healing substance. The foam, called AiFoam and equipped with artificial neural networks, consists of a highly elastic compound created by mixing a fluoropolymer (synthetic carbon-based plastic) with a compound that lowers surface tension.
According to the researchers, this allows the spongy material to easily become one piece when cut. “In particular, robots that get around humans need such material to function much smarter,” said Benjamin Tee, lead author of the study.
However, to replicate the material’s sense of touch, the researchers filled it with microscopic metal particles and added tiny electrodes under the foam’s surface. When pressure is applied, the metal particles converge, changing their electrical properties. Tee explained that these changes can be detected by electrodes connected to a computer, which will then tell the robot what to do. “When I move my finger near the sensor, you can see that the sensor measures changes in my electric field and responds to my touch,” Tee said.
This feature will enable the robotic hand to sense not only the amount but also the direction of the applied force, potentially making robots smarter and more interactive. On the other hand, Tee said the AiFoam is the first of its kind to combine both self-healing features and proximity and pressure sensing.
Tee said they spent more than two years developing the self-renewing material and could be commercially available in five years.
Tee also added that the new material will bring great benefits to prosthetic users: “The material we developed could allow its users to use their robotic limbs more intuitively while holding objects.”