Engineers from the University of Toronto have designed a tiny soft robot that is capable of moving similarly to an inchworm, which they claim could transform industries from aviation to wearable tech. The secret to their breakthrough lies in smart materials known as ETAs (Electrothermal Actuators), which are special polymers that can be programmed to move when encountering electrical or thermal changes. For example, the material could mimic muscles by expanding when introduced to heat, and contract when encountering cold.
Existing techniques of program ETAs are done using material in a flat resting state, which is limited as the material’s response results in a bending motion. According to a recently released paper, the engineers took a 3D approach to program the ETAs by using a thermal-induced stress/relaxation, and curing method, which allows for increased shape and movement motions.
Using the new stress/relaxation technique allows the electrothermal actuators to be programmed in a curled state, achieving a bending angle of over 5400, far higher than any previous programming capabilities. What’s more, the shape programming allows the ETAs to be custom tailored for specific applications, such as the inchworm movement shown above.
According to professor Hani Naguib (University of Toronto’s Robotics Institute), the breakthrough could lead to replacing solid robots in the manufacturing industry, stating “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, But the manufacturing industry is modernizing to meet demand. More and more, there’s an emphasis on incorporating human-robot interactions. Soft, adaptable robots can leverage that collaboration.”
Beyond manufacturing, the shape-shifting robots could also be used in other fields, including aviation, security, surgery, and wearable electronics, including therapeutic garments that could compress and release based on body temperature.