Breakthrough elastic fibre could give robots human-like nerves

28 May 2018

The fibres can withstand deformation of close to 500pc before recovering their initial shape. Image: Alban Kakulya/EPFL

An incredible breakthrough in the field of electronics could not only revolutionise smart clothes, but pave the way for more human-like robots.

While the design and size of sensors have changed dramatically in recent years, few will be as futuristic as the ones just revealed by the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

The breakthrough shows tiny elastic fibres made of elastomer that can incorporate materials such as electrodes and nanocomposite polymers.

With this flexibility, the fibres would be able to detect even the slightest amount of pressure and strain, while being able to withstand deformation close to 500pc before returning to their original shape.

This makes the fibre design perfect for smart clothing but, even more impressively, it paves the way for artificial nerves for future robots.

In a paper published to the journal Advanced Materials, the team described how it used a thermal drawing process – the standard process for optical fibre manufacturing – to make the fibres.

Until now, this process had only been used to make rigid fibres, but Fabien Sorin and his team were able to make elastic fibres by identifying some thermoplastic elastomers that have a high viscosity when heated.

After the fibres are drawn, they can be stretched and deformed but they always return to their original shape.

Artificial nerves

Rigid materials such as nanocomposite polymers, metals and thermoplastics can be introduced into the fibres, as well as liquid metals that can be easily deformed.

“For instance, we can add three strings of electrodes at the top of the fibres and one at the bottom,” Sorin said.

“Different electrodes will come into contact depending on how the pressure is applied to the fibres. This will cause the electrodes to transmit a signal, which can then be read to determine exactly what type of stress the fibre is exposed to, such as compression or shear stress.”

With the design completed, the team then worked with a lab in Berlin to integrate the fibres into robotic fingers as artificial nerves.

When the robot’s fingers touch something, electrodes in the fibres transmit information about the robot’s environment, but the team also believes they could be integrated into large-mesh clothing to create touch-sensitive keyboards in clothing, for example.

As the thermal drawing process can be easily tweaked for large-scale production, the team said it has already received interest from major manufacturers.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic