What Are Robotic Fabrics—and Why Should You Care?

At her Faboratory at Purdue University, Rebecca Kramer is working at the intersection of robotics and wearable technology. This has important implications for the Internet of Things.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 05, 2015

Rebecca Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, founded Faboratory (short for "fabrication laboratory") in 2013. There, she and her associates have made important progress toward printing conductive liquids that can serve as simple sensors, forming the basis for a new approach to robotics and intelligent fabrics.

Key to the lab's work is the development of an elastomer containing a conductive metallic liquid that is used to form basic stretchable electronics—electrical resistance-based strain gauges and pressure sensors. Her long-term vision is that these sensors, as well as actuators, will be woven into fabrics, where they will autonomously respond to environmental stimuli by changing shape, size or rigidity. These would be used either as components of robots or as materials that humans would wear for specific uses or applications. Kramer calls these "multi-functional robotic skins."

Mary Catherine O'Connor
"The idea is to build intelligence into the materials," Kramer says, "so fabrics can be responsive to the environment."

Imagine gloves that could automatically pulse or compress to improve the blood circulating in a wearer's hands as temperatures fall, for example. Or an inflatable jacket bellowing with air to increase insulation when the temperature falls, and then releasing the air as the temperature rises.

Or, think of a smart body suit able to monitor very small movements that an athlete makes, and then use pressure or vibrations to indicate small adjustments she can make to her form while training. Or perhaps the user is recovering from an injury and the smart body suit gives corrective or supportive triggers as she moves through rehabilitation exercises—like an invisible physical therapist.

Already, rigid frames called exoskeletons are being tested as a means of providing strength and endurance assistance to people with injuries or disabilities, or to soldiers, or to long-distance athletes. In fact, technologists have been developing exoskeletons for more than a decade.

Rebecca Kramer
Kramer says bridging the gap between those bulky exoskeletons and wearable and responsive electronics (which would either be worn by humans or by "soft" robots) will take more research and development—especially with regard to the interface between the simple sensors and their controllers, which will also collect data from those sensors.

Connectivity is another important key, Kramer says. "We want to collect data about the state of the wearer or the robot, and that does require an exchange of information," she explains, noting the relevance of this research to the Internet of Things: "If we want this technology to be used for injury prevention, or physical training, that will probably require that information be sent between the robotic fabric and a trainer or doctor."

Smarter materials represent an exciting and emerging part of the IoT landscape that has applicability in the industrial, commercial and consumer sectors. And Kramer is looking forward to start bringing the research outside the Faboratory's four walls. "We are seeking industry partners," she states. "We're approaching big players in the wearables space right now."

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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