A team of graduate students from Cornell University, led by Dr. Rob Shepard published a paper on their newly developed "Electroluminescent Skin," a skin that can emit light even when stretched to 6 times its original size. The material was inspired by the octopus and other cephalopods, and boasts the same abilities. It can change the color of its skin, and change its size to fit into areas that more rigid structures can't.
These HLEC (Hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitors) are made from layers of transparent hydrogel electrodes with a dielectric elastomer sheet in between. The panels can be integrated into robotic systems, and can be outfitted with sensors, making it ideal for wearables and health-based sensor applications. The team at Cornell has already made one robotic system from 3 panels, each consisting of 6 layers, that is capable of crawling. The robot moves using two pneumatic actuators that inflate and deflate and crawls in a worm-like fashion. You can see the skin and the crawling robot in action in the video below.
Dr. Shepard is pleased with how well the HLEC panels function, but application of the material into practical devices will be the next step as he alluded in an interview with the Cornell Chronicle:
“They would say something like, ‘OK, we have a single pixel that can stretch 500 percent in length.’ And so I’d say, ‘That’s cool, but what is the application for it?...And that’s the biggest thing – you can have something cool, but you need to find a reason to use it.”
The development of uses for these new panels is going to lead to some exciting inventions. Most of the speculated devices stem from the health care and transportation industries, but there is also significant interest in changing the way robots interact with humans in general. Soft and puffy robots that can change color based on somebody's mood, or the tone of a room's color, may be the future of robotics. This is in stark contrast to Boston Dynamics' Atlas, which looks like it would accidentally crush you if you attempted to give it a hug. This could be the difference between our new robotic companions looking like Baymax, or looking like the T-800.
Who wants to give uncle Atlas a hug?
Professor Shepard is very intrigued by this new approach to human-robot interaction and thinks that the HLEC panels can be part of this break-through:
"The ability for them to have emotional connection with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions."
The potential for all kinds of new devices is there, but the material scientists who developed it are going to need some help from electrical engineers like you to make use of this technology. It could be used for a life-saving wearable health monitor, a helpful robot that can fit into tight areas, or something less practical like rainbow-light yoga pants. No matter the function, when these HLEC panels become available, the ball will be in your court to make something amazing with them.