Singapore researchers have developed a smart foam material that allows robots to perceive nearby objects and repair themselves when damaged, just like human skin.

Artificial nerve innervation foam or AiFoam is a highly elastic polymer made by mixing a fluoropolymer with a compound that reduces surface tension.

According to researchers from the National University of Singapore, this makes the sponge material easy to fuse into one piece during cutting.

“This material has many applications, especially in robots and prosthetic devices. Robots need to be smarter when working around humans,” explained lead researcher Benjamin Tee.

In order to replicate the human sense of touch, the researchers injected tiny metal particles into this material and added tiny electrodes under the surface of the foam.

When pressure is applied, the metal particles move closer together in the polymer matrix, thereby changing their electrical properties. Tee said that these changes can be detected by electrodes connected to a computer, and then it will tell the robot what to do.

“When I move my finger near the sensor, you can see that the sensor is measuring my electric field changes and responding accordingly to my touch,” he said.

This function allows the robot hand to detect not only the magnitude of the applied force, but also the direction of the applied force, which may make the robot more intelligent and interactive.

Tee said that AiFoam is the first product of its kind to combine self-healing properties with proximity and pressure sensitivity. After more than two years of development, he and his team hope that this material can be put into practical use within five years.

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“It also allows prosthetic users to use their robotic arms more intuitively when grasping objects,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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