Lacings of stretchable optical fibers distributed throughout 3D-printed elastomer frameworks — could be used to create a linked sensory network similar to a biological nervous system that would enable soft robots to sense how they interact with their environment and adjust their motions accordingly. The synthetic material was developed at Cornell University by a research team led by Patricia Xu in the lab managed by professor Rob Shepherd.
For the optical lace, the researchers used a flexible, porous lattice structure manufactured from 3D-printed polyurethane. They threaded its core with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors. They then attached an LED light to illuminate the fiber. When the lattice structure was pressed at various points, the sensors were able to pinpoint changes in the photon flow.
“When the structure deforms, you have contact between the input line and the output lines, and the light jumps into these output loops in the structure, so you can tell where the contact is happening,” Xu said. “The intensity of this determines the intensity of the deformation itself.”