Imagine a second skin that distorts on command and is filled with sensors. This is exactly what Purdue University researchers are trying to do when developing robotic tissue.

The concept of robotic tissue is that it consists of a soft exoskeleton or muscle tissue made from electronic sensors and shape memory alloys, woven and molded into a cotton material. The end result is a sort of «skin» that can be placed around deformable materials that give the «robot» its shape.

The end result is a kind of «muscle» tissue that allows the skin to be used in a variety of ways — to create instantaneous «worm» robots, as a tracksuit for people under high G-forces or loads, or even as a programmable medical device that can be made to match. with the needs of the patient.

Creation of robotic tissue

Traditionally, robots have always been built using the human body and its internal skeleton as a model. This usually means hinges where the joints will be, strong metal rods where the bones will be, and complex mechanics to achieve balance and agility while moving.


Doctoral students Doctoral students Michelle Yuen, Jennifer Case, Justin Seipel, Arun Sherian and Kramer published a paper presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September that turns this whole concept on its head. Instead of using an internal skeleton approach, these researchers have created a kind of robotic exoskeleton that can be used in many other ways than a traditional robot.

How to use robotic skin

The basic operation of the robot’s skin is similar to a human muscle or an inchworm’s cut. The shape memory alloy, which is screwed into the cotton fabric, can heat up when heated, causing the fabric to move in the desired direction, and the flexible polymer, combined with these threads, provides the ability to sense. Purdue University professor Rebecca Cramer, who led the research team, explained it on Purdue’s website as an external robot with the ability to actuate and sense command.

We have integrated both control and recognition, while most of the robotic tissues currently being developed only have sensors or other electronic components that use a conductive filament.

The study was funded through the NASA Early Career Award. This will undoubtedly be a technology useful in NASA space operations, as such a «soft robot» can be easily transported and manufactured in a remote environment such as the Moon or Mars with minimal effort. Such a robot will have low power consumption as it crawls or hides in a foreign environment. Connected sensors will be able to collect information about the environment.

Kramer explained that this is a robotic technology is a low power alternative to the old robotic articulation — instead of holding the connection in position, the robotic fabric can be «locked in place» to maintain position.


This approach allows any object to become a robot, because «… all robotic technology is in tissue or skin.»

Improvement of the human body

In addition to space exploration, this robotic skin can also provide additional enhancements to the human body. They are somewhat thinner than larger exoskeleton applications. Matt recently described, but no less impressive. For example, while pilots currently use existing specialized «anti-G suits» that constrict the legs and stomach during high G-force maneuvers to keep blood in the upper body, this kind of robotic tissue could provide more accurate pressure points on the body than the air bubbles these suits provide.

John Stapp encountered huge G-forces during his 421 mph Sonic Wind ride in 1954. (Courtesy of the US Air Force)

This could increase the effectiveness of these suits, allowing humans to face higher g-forces, pilot more advanced aircraft, or handle high-speed space travel safely. It doesn’t quite look like examples of bio-hacking. which Andre covered recently, but it’s pretty close.

Medical applications of robotic skin

Of the many applications of this technology, the medical field can benefit from most of them. Not only can the material perfectly fit a person’s joint or limb, but embedded sensors can provide doctors with an easy way to observe a patient’s physiology.

A sling or cast can quickly become old-school technology as embedded sensors and programmable polymers infiltrate what might look like a simple bandage.


Not only can the shape memory alloy provide any level of compression required by the Doctor, the flexible polymer sensors can monitor vital signs, detect the presence of an infection, or monitor and alert the Doctor when an injury is completely healed.

Even without sensors, programmable alloy technology alone could provide advanced suits for people with disabilities who need joint or limb support for mobility. Matt might argue that this is another way technology is affecting human evolution. but perhaps in this case it would be fine.

What do you think of this new technology? Can you think of any other interesting, creative applications for it? Let’s brainstorm in the comments section below!

Image Credits: Bandage Arm via Shutterstock, Robotic Arm via Shutterstock, Di Studio via Shutterstock, and Andrea Cristan via Shutterstock

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