Have you ever looked at a length of foam or a teddy bear and wished that it could writhe its way across the floor like an ungainly worm?
Well, problem solved: A research team at Yale has developed a robotic system that can wrap around soft objects (including people) and push and pull on them to make them move.
The robotic system, developed in the lab of Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, an engineering professor at the university, is designed to be a general-purpose machine for making anything that is sufficiently soft move. In a paper published yesterday (Sept. 19) in the journal Science Robotics, the researchers wrote that the same "OmniSkin" can be used on a wide range of different "soft bodies" to get them moving.
"We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task — locomotion, for example — and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object," Kramer-Bottiglio said in a statement. "We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device."
A video accompanying the paper in Science Robotics shows the OmniSkins wrapped around several different objects to make the objects heave themselves across a table. It then shows them wrapped around a person's back as a posture-correcting device. Finally, it causes a stuffed horse to… sort of slowly wiggle its bound legs in a walking motion. The researchers also suggest it might be useful for giving some semblance of robotic animation to a teddy bear.
The project is a bit funny-looking, but Kramer-Bottiglio said it has a serious purpose: to help NASA prepare for the unknown environments of deep space exploration. NASA has signaled in recent years that it's interested in multifunctional, squishy robots that can adapt to unpredictable tasks in deep space.
Originally published on Live Science.