Smart textiles makes robots move
Robots that sense touches, controlled with simple hand movements, and with soft muscles. A five-year collaboration project between the University of Borås and the University of Skövde is on the tracks of the future.
Design, textiles and sustainable development is one of four collaboration themes between the universities initiated in 2013 after the government announced more joint research between smaller and middle-sized universities and higher education institutions (see facts box). The overall aim was to establish an open, dynamic, and long-lived eco system for research, innovation, and education in smart textiles.
Vincent Nierstrasz, professor of textile materials technology at the University of Borås and leader of the theme, with four research groups in Borås and three in Skövde, says:
“These are top notch ideas.” Another aim of the collaboration was not only to strengthen the research, but also to ensure that the results come to use in teaching. Gender balance was also an important factor.
The collaboration focused on two already strong domains at the two universities: advanced information systems in Skövde and smart textiles in Borås. In practice, to a large extent this has concerned one of the most discussed scientific areas of the future: robots.
The project presented its first results in 2015, mainly about the robot Nao, who can be controlled with a glove of smart textiles where the robot senses the user’s movements. But all hands do not fit the same glove, and after almost five years of work the researchers have now found a number of ways to communicate with robots.
Fernando Seoane Martinez, professor of medical technology at the University of Borås, is the leader of a research group working on a prototype of a bracelet with electromyographs. Electromyography (EMG) is a technique for measuring electrical changes to the muscle cells. By measuring the impedance between electrons in the bracelet, different hand movements can be defined. The signals are picked up by the wrist band, which consists of intarsia knitted textile electrodes, and then transmitted to an electronic receiver that converts the signals into information.
The research team has focused on six fundamental hand movements: opening the hand, closing the fist, reaching it out, etc. The idea is that every movement should correspond to a commando for the robot. Merely interpreting two-step movements allows 36 different commands. Fernando Seoane Martinez calls this basic exploration of robot communication but sees opportunities ahead.
“This is about being able to control machines with simple movements, which could be useful especially in the industry. Hopefully this technology could be developed into using other controllable EMG signals of the body”, he says.
Fernando is also the leader of a research group who are trying to construct synthetic skin using smart textiles.
“Previously, researchers have wanted to communicate with robots by talking. Nobody has been interested in touching them. But we humans express feelings through touch: we fight, push, caress, etc. If we are to manufacture humanoid robots, they should be able to sense”, he says.
Primarily, human-like robots are of interest to the healthcare sector, where they act as company as much as helpers.
“Traditionally, robots have been made out of plastic and metal. But now you can think of them as pets rather than household machines,” he says.
The solution is smart textiles made out of conductive yarn with sensors. At the moment, the sensors can perceive seven different types of touch: from subtle pats to demonstrative pushes. The next step is to make a piece of clothing out of the fabric and integrate it with a robot.
“The challenge of these prototypes is to find ways of manufacturing that could be integrated with the production chains of the textile industry. Otherwise, they will never be financial enough to be manufactured on a larger scale,” says Fernando Seoane Martinez.
It is not only a matter of how many signals the smart textiles in Borås pick up, they must also be turned into actions by the robots. This is where the researchers in Skövde come into the picture. With their expertise in information technology and material mechanics, they ensure that the signals are expressed through the machines and robots.
The challenge of these prototypes is to find ways of manufacturing that could be integrated with the production chains of the textile industry.
Rosana Moriana Torró, senior lecturer in machine technology at the University of Skövde and part of the research group, works together with the colleagues in Borås on producing synthetic polymer fibres that could act as smart actuators – in other words, something that in the end could function as woven artificial muscles.
“This is still very basic research. There is not much published research on artificial muscles, so for us it is about building a foundation for future knowledge”, she says.
The smart muscle tissue responds to changes in temperature and can either become longer or shorter. The challenge is to adapt the tissue to the minimal temperature changes of the human body in order to build mobile prostheses in the future. A wide field of application is also in robotics, and the development of so-called “soft robots”.
Rosana Moriana Torró is also a doctor at the School of Chemical Science and Engineering (KTH) and focuses on research on polymers (substances of chain-shaped molecules) that the smart fabric is made of. The fabric is manufactured in Borås and sent to Skövde to simulate the actuation.
“The difficult thing is to predict exactly how the fibres react to different changes in the environment. We need to understand how the polymers work on a molecular level. We have promising results in making them contract; we just have to do the same thing with the lengthening”, says Rosana Moriana Torró. Rosana became a part of the project in the autumn of 2017 and thinks that the collaboration with the University of Borås is working well.
“I think it’s necessary: we have the expertise in technology and Borås in modelling. Neither of us could have done this on our own.”
The collaboration project ends in the summer of 2018. All results and prototypes will be displayed at a presentation at the University of Borås on June 13. However, project leader Vincent Nierstrasz is hoping for continued funding.
“I really want this to go on. This is money well invested. It’s cutting edge research, and unique collaboration at an international level”, he says.
The researchers repeatedly point out that the results are still on a basic level. But the potential for robotics and smart textiles is not hard to imagine, according to Vincent Nierstrasz.
“We are sketching the future”, he says. “Robots can be used in so many places in society: in health care, in the industry, in the service sector. And they can be fun too! Think of about all the things you can do with them, playing games and so on. What do I know? I’m just a simple scientist.”
When you’re talking about robots, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that this is science fiction.
“Yes, but this is happening today – and that’s what is so cool about it.”
Text: Christian Naumanen
Photo: Anna Sigge
Rosana Moriana Torró