Smart foam gives robots the ability to self-repair and sense objects

Robots and machines are getting smarter with the advancement of artificial intelligence, but they still lack the ability to touch and feel their subtle and complex surroundings like human beings.

Now, Singaporean researchers have developed a smart foam that can give machines more than human touch. The artificially innervated foam, or AiFoam – which is soft and feels like a sponge – mimics the human sense of touch, can sense nearby objects without actually touching, and repairs itself when damaged. The technology could be very useful in the creation of robotic arms and prostheses.

The researchers say some advanced electronic skins can feel pressure when in direct contact with an object. However, none of the electronic skins can detect the direction of movement of adjacent objects.

AiFoam is a highly elastic polymer created by mixing fluoropolymer with a surfactant that lowers surface tension. This allows the “artificial skin” to fuse easily into one piece even after being cut – almost like a real human.

To replicate the human sense of touch, the researchers infused the material with microscopic metal particles and embedded fine cylinder-shaped electrodes underneath the surface of the foam.

When pressure is applied, the metal particles move closer together within the polymer matrix, changing their electrical properties. Electrodes connected to a computer detect the direction of the applied force, not just the amount of force. This would enable robots to understand human intentions better or know that an object in contact is about to slip so that they can react more quickly and appropriately.

There are many applications for this smart foam, especially in robotics and prosthetic devices, where robots need to be much smarter when working with humans.

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