'

The nerve: Tiny fibers give robots a new way to sense

Artificial nerves bring flexibility to robotics and smart wearables (and bring us a step closer to Westworld).

Researchers in Switzerland have found a new way to make highly elastic fibers that can be embedded with sensing components to double as nerves in a robotic nervous system.

The fibers, developed by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), are built from elastomer, which make them extremely flexible. When combined with electrodes, the fibers become sophisticated sensors that can detect pressure and strain.

The flexibility makes these sensors ideally suited for a number of non-traditional robot forms, including soft robots that mimic biological organisms.

The process used to make the elastic fibers is identical to the thermal drawing technique used to produce optical fiber. In this case, researchers start with a centimeter-scale chunk of elastomer into which they've arranged various sensing components, such as electrodes.

They apply heat, and the elastomer, along with the internal components, is then stretched into a long thin fiber.

nervous-system.jpg

Until now, thermal drawing has only been used to make rigid fibers. But the Swiss researchers identified a kind of thermoplastic that becomes viscous when heated and retains its elasticity when cooled.

The Swiss team teamed up with scientists in the Robotics and Biology Laboratory at the Technical University of Berlin to explore applications in robotics. So far the fibers have been used in a robotic finger with soft skin.

Due to their flexibility, the fibers are ideally suited to robotic systems that replicate biological organisms.

A new class of soft robots does away with rigid structures and traditional actuators in favor of flexible structures that deform, flex, and expand through various actuation methods. But traditionally rigid sensors have been a stumbling block. These flexible fibers look to be a promising solution, allowing for completely soft, highly-sensitive robotic platforms.

Future applications will likely include smart textiles and medical implants, according to a paper on the breakthrough published in the journal Advanced Materials.

"It's a whole new way of thinking about sensors," according to an EPFL spokesperson.