But sophistication wasn't their primary goal, Shepherd noted.
"We don't want this to be a technology that only a few people in the world can use; we want it to be fairly easy to do," Shepherd told Live Science. He wanted the texturing technology, which built on the team's earlier findings on how to make color-changing silicone skins, to be accessible to industry, academia and hobbyists alike. Therefore, the team deliberately used limiting technologies like laser cutters to manufacture the wire rings because that's what people outside a Cornell University lab could use.
Itai Cohen, a physics professor at Cornell, who also worked on the research, noted another accessible aspect of the technology. On an excursion into the field, Cohen envisions stacking sheets of deflated silicone — programmed to inflate into a camouflaging texture — into the back of one's truck. "Now, you can inflate it so it doesn't have to be in that permanent shape, which is really difficult to transport," Cohen told Live Science.
As the technology advances, one might even be able to scan an environment and then program the corresponding silicone sheet right then and there to mimic it, Cohen speculated.
Both Pikul and Shepherd plan to pursue this technology in their own respective labs. Shepherd explained that since developing the technology, he's started to replace the inflation with electric currents that could cause the same texturing — no tether and pressurized air system required. And Pikul hopes to apply the lessons learned from manipulating the surfaces of materials to things where surface area plays a significant role, like batteries or coolants, he said.
"We're still very much in the exploratory phase of soft robotics," Shepherd said. Because most machines are made up of hard metals and plastics, the conventions and best uses of soft robots have yet to be fully fleshed out. "We're just at the beginning, and we have great results," he said, but the key is, "in the future, making it easier for other people to use the technology and making sure these systems are reliable."
The study was funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office.
Original article on Live Science.
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