Yale researchers create breakthrough robotic fabrics

Researchers from the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science have announced a breakthrough in what they call robotic fabric. The breakthrough could lead to innovations like adaptive clothing, self-deploying shelters, or lightweight shape-changing machinery. Researchers in the lab of Prof. Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio have created a robotic fabric featuring actuation ability, flexibility, breathability, small storage footprint, and lightweight.

The creation the researchers have designed can go from a piece of flat fabric to a standing, load-bearing structure. The team also demonstrated a wearable robotic tourniquet, and a small airplane with deployable fabric wings can be stowed away. Researchers focus on processing functional materials into fiber-form to allow them to be integrated into fabrics while retaining their advantageous properties.

The team made variable stiffness fibers out of an epoxy embedded with particles of Field's metal. That material is an alloy that liquefies at relatively low temperatures. When cool, the particles are solid metal and make the material stiffer. When warm, the particles melt into a liquid and make the material softer.

The team says that the material they created can be as flexible as latex rubber or stiff as hard acrylic, which is over a thousand times more rigid. That is accomplished by simply heating or cooling down the material. The team also created a conductive ink based on a Pickering emulsion to create sensors that can detect internal or environmental changes to allow the fabric to respond appropriately.

To make the fabric move, the team used a shape-memory alloy wire that can return to a preprogrammed shape after being deformed. Rather than using the typical coil technique, the team flattened the wires into ribbons to give them the geometry more suited to a smooth bending motion, which the team says is preferred for robotic fabrics.