Robotic Clothes? Check Out These Aussie-Made Smart Textiles

Robotic Clothes? Check Out These Aussie-Made Smart Textiles
Image: UNSW

Engineers at UNSW have developed a textile that can shape-shift robotically from a 2D material into a 3D structure.

The technology involves soft, artificial ‘muscles’, made of long silicon tubes filled with fluid and manipulated with hydraulics. The artificial muscles are surrounded by a “helical coil of traditional fibres”, with the ability to be programmed, changing how they might contract, expand or morph into a variety of shapes.

The textile was developed by UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering and the Tyree Foundation Institute of Health Engineering.

“These ‘smart fluid textiles’ take the advantage of hydraulic pressure and add the fast response, lightweight, high flexibility and small size of soft artificial muscles. In effect, we have given our smart textiles the expansion and contraction ability in the exact same way as human muscle fibres,” said Scientia senior lecturer Dr Thanh Nho Do. Do led the research.

“This material has significant benefits as it is made from miniature soft artificial muscles which offer a thin, flexible, and highly conformable structure.”

The thumbnail of the video below makes the technology kind of look like Scoobies, which you might remember from primary school, but I assure you the tech is far more advanced than the playground fad.

The research team says that the technology could be deployed in a variety of fields.

“We envision our material could be used to develop soft exoskeletons to enable people with disabilities to walk again or augment the human performance. Most existing technologies in that field are still based around rigid robotic suits, but it is our hope that we could create a lightweight, soft exoskeleton that looks and feels just like leggings which can be worn like normal clothing,” added Do.

“We propose it can be used to develop new medical compression devices, for example, that are low-profile and lead to better medical outcomes. Patients with poor blood circulation could benefit from smart garments that contract to apply desired pressure to superficial veins and assist blood supply. Athletes also use compression garments to recover at a faster rate and reduce muscle soreness after training, and our smart textile has potential to be utilised in that area.”

unsw textile
A diagram of the technology. Image: UNSW

Another use this technology could have is in soft robotics, solving problems that traditional, more hardy robots can’t solve. The ability to morph the entirety of a soft robot while retaining tensile strength is something that could become very useful in a hazardous environment.

“Traditional robots are effective when working in structured environments, but they are quite rigid and encounter problems dealing with unknown contexts of changing environments,” added Phuoc Thien Phan from the UNSW Medical Robotics Lab.

“Normal robots cannot change their shape or start off as a two-dimensional flat material to be able to access small spaces and then morph into a three-dimensional object.”

Additionally, Do has received funding from the National Heart Foundation of Australia to investigate if the technology could help failing hearts pump blood around the body.

You can read about the study in Scientific Reports and Soft Robotics.