A team of biomedical engineers in Australia have developed a smart textile which incorporates artificial “muscles”, in the hopes that it will revolutionise the future of soft robotics and wearable exoskeletons.
The team demonstrated the shape-morphing flexibility of the material to Reuters, with models of a butterfly and flower made from the textile, performing complex motions in their lab. Team leader Thanh Nho Do is thinking bigger, believing that he and his team could even use the material to create a human smart suit.
“Like the Iron Man suit or Spiderman suit,” said Mr Do, who is also the head of the University of New South Wales Medical Robotics Lab. “It is very flexible and has a very high conformability to the bodies,” he explained.
The programmable smart textiles were created by weaving or knitting fabric together with artificial muscle fibres. The resultant material has the ability to shape-shift and can lift objects up to 192 times its weight, according to the team in their academic paper published in June. The “muscle fibres” were constructed from long silicon tubes filled with fluid, and then manipulated hydraulically using a syringe.
Mr Do said that the material has a wide range of potential applications.
“We can use our technology to make soft wearable devices for human augmentation or we can support disabled people to walk again,” he said.
One potential use is compression garments. The team showcased prototypes pulsing over a finger and forearm, which could provide massage therapy to relieve pain or improve blood circulation. Another one is the creation of shape-shifting robots to assist search-and-rescue teams in accessing hard-to-reach locations.
The team illustrated this by curling the material around a much larger screw, lifting it out of a narrow tube with ease.