New skin-like robot could turn us into superhumans

Inspired by nature, roboticist Indrek Must is working on a wearable robot made of textile.

Nuts, bolts, and lots of cables. That’s what most people imagine when they think of wearable robots.
These external skeletons are usually created to protect and support people with disabilities. They help them stand up and walk, or just make people stronger. Many start-ups are making them, but none have really reached a wider market yet.

Exoskeletons are still only taking baby steps. But a Tartu University roboticist Indrek Must is working on something even more exclusive, and as he believes, more efficient in the long run: a three-layer textile, as thin as human skin, that people could wear one day.

A patient with moving difficulties could zip it up like an overall and walk to work one day.
Textile is great for this, because it can’t hurt people. Soft material is also more intuitive and comfortable than wearing metal parts on your legs and arms like a science fiction character. Or like Must likes to emphasize, textile is simply more natural.
“Whenever I have questions, I always look for answers from nature,” he admitted.

Smart textile made of natural substances

In his three-layer textile, Must combines fluids that contain mobile charges with two natural textiles. The first textile, activated carbon material, is derived from wood pulp. The second textile, silk, prevents the electrically charged textiles from contacting.

At the moment, Must is focused on developing the material cell-by-cell in his lab. In the long run, it should turn into a whole exoskeleton.
“I’m creating the most primitive intelligence on a material level,” explained the scientist, who completed his post-doc at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia.
Each cell acts semi-autonomously just like in the skin. It’s like they have their own microscopic brains that follow the commands that have been previously programmed. They have the information about which movements should be expected in any specific situation. The material would then behave in a certain way by helping the patient lift their leg or boost their jump.
The cells would only need a small impulse by the person wearing the material.
The key to success in robotics is the connection between those tiny brains, or cells in this case, Must explained. As textile has fibres that bind many identical elements together, it turned out to be a great material for robotics. It creates a bendable structure that can wrap itself around a limb and help out a fellow human.

Read full article by Marian Männi in Research in Estonia.

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.