A new stretchable optical lace may make soft robots even softer to the touch. The synthetic material forms a linked sensory network, similar to a biological nervous system, allowing robots to sense how they interact with their surroundings and adjust their actions accordingly.
Researchers want to measure stresses and strains in highly deformable objects using hardware rather than vision. A biological approach is a good way to think about it. People can still feel their surroundings with their eyes closed because their fingers have sensors that deform when their finger deforms. That is currently not possible for robots.
Previously, the researchers developed sensory foams that used optical fibers to detect such deformations. They used a flexible, porous lattice structure made of 3D-printed polyurethane for the optical lace project and threaded its core with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors. They then attached an LED light to the fiber to illuminate it.
The sensors detected changes in photon flow when the researchers pressed the lattice structure at various points. The optical lace would not be used as a skin coating for robots but would be more similar to human flesh. Robots outfitted with the material would be better suited for the healthcare industry, particularly for beginning-of-life and end-of-life care and manufacturing.