Robotic fabric stiffens and relaxes in response to changes in temperature

Scientists have created a robotic fabric that stiffens and relaxes in response to changes in temperature, which could be used in emergency situations.

The material, developed at Yale University in the US, is equipped with a system of heat sensors and threads that stiffen to change the fabric's shape. 

Under heat changes, it can bend and twist to transform itself into adaptable clothing, shape-changing machinery and self-erecting shelters. 

Video footage shows the material going from a flat, ordinary fabric to a load-bearing structure supporting a weight, a model airplane with flexible wings and a wearable robotic tourniquet that activates in response to damage. 

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On-demand support fibres allow a robotic fabric to be bent or twisted and then locked into shape, or hold weights that would otherwise collapse a typical fabric

On-demand support fibres allow a robotic fabric to be bent or twisted and then locked into shape, or hold weights that would otherwise collapse a typical fabric

'We believe this technology can be leveraged to create self-deploying tents, robotic parachutes, and assistive clothing,' said Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio at Yale University. 

'Fabrics are a ubiquitous material used in a wide range of products, and the ability to roboticise some of these products opens up many possibilities.'

Researchers said the contraption retains all the characteristic qualities of general fabric, like flexibility, breathability and low weight, meaning it can be worn as normal.       

To make the fabric move, the researchers used shape-memory alloy (SMA) wire – a class of alloys that is deformed when cold but returns to its pre-deformed shape when heated. 

SMA is usually programmed into coils or meshes to generate a contracting motion, but for the robotic fabric this concept was adjusted slightly. 

'Instead of using the coil technique, we flattened the wires out into ribbons to give them a geometry much more suited to smooth bending motion, which is perfect for robotic fabrics,' said study author Trevor Buckner at Yale University.  

These so-called 'support fibres' are loaded with an epoxy embedded with particles of Field’s metal – an alloy that liquefies at approximately 144°F (62°C).     

When cool, the particles are solid metal and make the material stiffer, but when warm, the particles melt into liquid and make the material softer. 

A square of the robotic fabric sheet, seen here laid flat on a surface. A similar square scaled-up could be a self-deploying shelter

A square of the robotic fabric sheet, seen here laid flat on a surface. A similar square scaled-up could be a self-deploying shelter

After softening a selection of the fibres (the 'legs' of the robot), the fabric is able to prop itself up. At this point the table is able to support a 50g mass. When the legs are again softened, the table collapses under the weight of the load mass

After softening a selection of the fibres (the 'legs' of the robot), the fabric is able to prop itself up. At this point the table is able to support a 50g mass. When the legs are again softened, the table collapses under the weight of the load mass

These 'on-demand' fibres allow a fabric to be bent or twisted and then locked into shape, or hold loads that would otherwise collapse a conventional fabric.

'Long fibres of this material can be sewn onto a fabric to give it a supportive skeleton that we can turn on and off,' said Buckner. 

'Our Field’s metal-epoxy

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