Developing smart foam to make robots more intelligent

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed an artificial smart foam – ‘AiFoam’ – for robots to interact more intelligently with their surroundings.

With innovation and developments in Artificial Intelligence, robots and machines are becoming more intelligent, but they still do not have the ability to feel and touch their complex and subtle surroundings in the way that human beings can.

Now, scientists from NUS have created a smart foam that provides machines with more than a human touch.

The novel material, which is soft and spongey, is called artificially innervated foam, or AiFoam. With the ability to sense nearby objects without touching them, it imitates the sense of touch and can fix itself if damaged.

Contrasted with other materials, Aifoam is the first smart foam to carry out these functions simultaneously, thus possibly enabling more intelligent and interactive robots.

This novel material has been created by a team led by Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee from the NUS Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (iHealthtech).

“We want to show that it is possible to replicate the human sense of touch in a robot, which opens up a new paradigm in the interaction between man and machine for future applications,” said Tee.

AiFoam – a very elastic polymer – was developed by combining a Teflon-like substance called fluoropolymer, with a surfactant that lowers surface tension. The resulting material can fuse back into one when separated into pieces. The researchers then infused the materials with microscopic metal particles which allows the foam to sense the presence of a capacitive object like a human finger.

The team opted to develop a foam with these qualities as it can be made more sensitive in comparison to conventional thin sheets. The soft foam can be more easily controlled by adjusting the ratio of air to material.

As well as this, the foam enables the material to better sense the closeness of human presence compared with other frequently used e-skin materials such as silicones. Remarkably, AiFoam can identify the presence of human fingers from centimetres away. Its novel design allows it to detect human presence more effectively unlike other proximity sensors that generally utilise light and reflections which can lead to higher false positive or negative rates.

“By having a foam with our special formulation, we can sense both pressure and proximity easily,” explained Tee.

The researchers are investigating potential partnerships with robotics companies and exploring the use of Aifoam for applications such as robotics and prosthetics, to enable more unified interactions between man and machine.

“The self-healing properties of AiFoam, as well as its sensitivity to a contact force, will enable robots to better judge human intention, and build a future generation of robots that will react to environmental changes quickly and more efficiently,” added Tee.

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