Researchers Develop Robotic Hydrogel That Can "Feel"

The future of robots is fleshier.

Robot helpers from The Jetsons to Star Wars have always been shiny and metallic, but robots in the real world may be altogether more fleshy.

Researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology have created a new synthetic skin that could be a future of fleshy robots that can touch and feel, as well as opening the door to some pretty high tech bandages in the meanwhile.

Engineers created the Silly Putty-like substance by fusing together water-containing hydrogel and an incredibly thin metal compound, known as MXenes. This ultra-stretchy material has shown the potential to be used as a touch-sensitive coating for robots, wearable electronics, and even bandages that help heal wounds faster.

“The material’s differing sensitivity to stretching and compression is a breakthrough discovery that adds a new dimension to the sensing capability of hydrogels,” first author, Yizhou Zhang, said in a statement.

One of the major breakthroughs with this one-of-a-kind material is its ability to sense changes on the surfaces it is applied to and translate those changes into electronic signals.

Signals from the electrically conductive hydrogel can clearly distinguish between different facial expressions.

2018 KAUST

The team tested the material by attaching a strip of it to a user’s forehead. They had the subject smile and frown and found that the strip could identify these distinct facial expressions. Then, they stuck another slice of robo Play-Doh to the neck of another subject and found that it was also able to convert into electronic signals.

Both of these successful proof-of-concept experiments have shown that this material may some day be able to tap into the body’s subtle signals and transform them into something that other observers we can understand, a potential game-changer for those suffering from paralysis or speech-impediments.

Just like you can mold pretty much anything you want with some Silly Putty, researchers say the potential uses for this high tech artificial material seem almost endless: creating robotic exoskeletons, more tactile A.I. applications, and even a material capable of patching up a life-threatening wound are all possibilities.

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