A Purdue University professor is among seven researchers selected by NASA to receive an Early Career Faculty award. The funding is given to educators developing new technologies with robotics, lasers and other useful space exploration tools. August 7, 2014

News Release

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University professor is among seven researchers selected by NASA for Early Career Faculty awards to pursue new technologies in robotics, lasers and other systems for space exploration.

Rebecca Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will lead a Purdue team focusing on “active elastic skins for soft robotics.”

NASA selected proposals to develop new space technologies for robots capable of traversing alien terrains, new lightweight materials and structures, and advanced lasers for space missions. Such innovation will be needed for the exploration of asteroids, Mars and the outer planets, according to a NASA statement. The projects are funded through NASA's Space Technology Research Grants Program.

Kramer is working on technologies related to “soft machines” made of elastic materials for potential applications in robotics, medical devices and consumer electronics. She and her students are creating a robotic fabric that can be slipped over a block of foam or an inflated balloon. Orienting the fabric in one direction causes the robot to bend, producing locomotion like an inchworm's. Orienting the fabric in a different direction causes it to compress – producing a peristaltic – or slithering locomotion.

The NASA project takes the research a step further, focusing on the development of an elastic robotic skin containing a shape-memory alloy for muscle-like movement as well as numerous sensors to provide feedback and environmental information.

The goal is to make possible a class of soft robots where all the functional elements including sensors are embedded in the skin. The approach could allow space travelers to ship lightweight, easy-to-store sheets of robotic skin for assembly once they reach their destination.

“We want to be able to design and make robots on the fly,” Kramer said. “By embedding all of the functional components into a 2-D skin, and then wrapping that skin around 3-D deformable objects, we'll be able to create many robots with variable functionality rather than a single robot designed for a single function.”

This multilayered skin will include flexible electronics that are less sensitive to vibration than conventional hardware, making them rugged enough for mission environments. Sensors are critical to the design.

“There has to be some kind of intelligence built into the system,” Kramer said. “And this poses challenges because we need to deal with sensor networks and how to interface with hardware. As we make sensors smaller and smaller and then pack them more densely, we have a lot of sensory inputs. So how do we transform large arrays of sensor inputs into an estimation of system state?”

Source: Purdue University

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