We all have that classical view of robots that was impressed upon us as we grew up with science fiction stereotypes. We saw them as having mechanical bodies with a primary brain unit that controls all their behavior. This classic view of robots could well be a thing of the past according to the publication Science Robotics. One of their recent articles claims that all future robots will likely have intelligence from the robotic material that will be distributed all over their bodies.
Robotic Materials Distributes Intelligence throughout their Bodies
This concept, or at least the innovative discipline that governs it, is considered to be “material robotics” or as we stated earlier, “robotic materials” and are basically a breakdown of ideas from the fields of materials science and robotics. Proponents claim that advances in both of these fields are creating composite materials that are capable of combining actuation, sensing, computation, and even communication. Further still, this material can operate as an independent entity – separate from any central processing unit like a brain.
A lot of the newfound inspiration coming from this field is attributed to nature, as practitioners look to things like the adaptive abilities of a cuttlefish that camouflages its skin, or the ability of a bird that can morph its wings for various maneuvers, or even a banyan tree that can grow roots above the ground in order to grow new branches.
Lots of Intelligence for Defense Purposes
Embracing the ability to change camouflage and creating morphing wings have obvious applications within the aerospace and defense sectors, but researchers claim that similar approaches could very well be employed to develop anything from smart tires that can actually calculate tractions required for certain road surfaces to custom grippers that have the ability to adjust their force to the texture of objects they are gripping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and react to an uncertain world,” the article authors have written. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The notion of creating material that is more adaptive isn’t a new one, and there is currently a bevy of existing “smart materials” that can already react to stimuli factors such as heat, magnetic fields, and or even mechanical stress and respond by producing voltages or modifying their shapes. These properties can actually be tuned to develop material that is capable of a huge number of functions like movement, self-repair, and of course sense.
The authors of this article claim that synthesizing these types of intelligent materials, alongside advanced materials such as biocompatible conductors and biodegradable elastomers, is very foundational for the field of material robotics. But this overall approach will involve a high level of integration of these capabilities within the same material. This will require a mechanical design that will optimize their mechanical abilities, thus closing the gap that exists between control and sensing in the material itself.
Even though there are existing stand-alone applications for these sorts of materials in the short term, with things like robotic grippers or smart fabrics, the long-term goal from the field is to enhance decision-making for future robots. And the key to doing this is through the extended use of intelligent robotic material.