Soft robots inspired by nature can crawl, swim, grasp delicate objects, and even assist a beating heart, but none of them has been able to sense and respond to the world around them. Inspired by the human body’s sensory capabilities, a new platform creates soft robots with embedded sensors that can sense movement, pressure, touch, and temperature.
Integrating sensors within soft robots has been difficult in part because most sensors, such as those used in traditional electronics, are rigid. To address this challenge, an organic, ionic, liquid-based conductive ink was developed that can be 3D-printed within the soft elastomer matrices that comprise most soft robots.
To fabricate the device, embedded 3D printing was used. It seamlessly and quickly integrates multiple features and materials within a single soft body. The new ink, combined with the embedded 3D printing process, allows both soft sensing and actuation to be combined in one integrated soft robotic system.
To test the sensors, a soft robotic gripper comprised of three soft fingers or actuators was printed. The gripper’s ability to sense inflation pressure, curvature, contact, and temperature was tested. Multiple contact sensors were embedded so the gripper could sense light and deep touches.
Next, the researchers hope to harness the power of machine learning to train these devices to grasp objects of varying size, shape, surface texture, and temperature.