Soft Robots Use Kirigami Piezoelectric Sensor Skin

MIT researchers have created soft sensors that cover a robot's body and provide an analog to the proprioceptive sense that humans have about how their bodies are arrayed in space.


(Kirigami soft, piezoresistive strain sensor material)

While working in his CSAIL lab one day looking for inspiration for sensor materials, Truby made an interesting connection. “I found these sheets of conductive materials used for electromagnetic interference shielding, that you can buy anywhere in rolls,” he says. These materials have “piezoresistive” properties, meaning they change in electrical resistance when strained. Truby realized they could make effective soft sensors if they were placed on certain spots on the trunk. As the sensor deforms in response to the trunk’s stretching and compressing, its electrical resistance is converted to a specific output voltage. The voltage is then used as a signal correlating to that movement. But the material didn’t stretch much, which would limit its use for soft robotics. Inspired by kirigami — a variation of origami that includes making cuts in a material — Truby designed and laser-cut rectangular strips of conductive silicone sheets into various patterns, such as rows of tiny holes or crisscrossing slices like a chain link fence. That made them far more flexible, stretchable, “and beautiful to look at,” Truby says.

They created a kind of robotic elephant trunk with skin sensors, and swung it around, and recorded the impulses from the sensor network.

To estimate the soft robot’s configuration using only the sensors, the researchers built a deep neural network to do most of the heavy lifting, by sifting through the noise to capture meaningful feedback signals. The researchers developed a new model to kinematically describe the soft robot’s shape that vastly reduces the number of variables needed for their model to process.

In experiments, the researchers had the trunk swing around and extend itself in random configurations over approximately an hour and a half. They used the traditional motion-capture system for ground truth data. In training, the model analyzed data from its sensors to predict a configuration, and compared its predictions to that ground truth data which was being collected simultaneously. In doing so, the model “learns” to map signal patterns from its sensors to real-world configurations. Results indicated, that for certain and steadier configurations, the robot’s estimated shape matched the ground truth.

One sf robot that could demonstrate how pressure-sensitive skin could be used was Rolem the wrestling robot from This Immortal, a classic Roger Zelazny novel. An exquisite appreciation of force across wide surface areas would be needed to make sure a wrestling robot did not damage its user.

Read more at this detailed article at wevolver.

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