It’s Good to be Flexible
Soft, squishy robot prototypes — often based on microfluidics networks
— have been around academic labs a while. You can imagine the
applications of a rescue robot that can squeeze through cracks to get to
the injured, or a military robot that can ooze under a door to deliver a
toxic gas or other payload. While both scenarios are still in the realm of
sci-fi, there continues to be significant progress in the development of
practical flexible robots and flexible components.
On the almost practical front, you’ve probably seen the flexible 3D
printed dress created with a new, flexible material from Materialise
( materialise.com). In the long-term, truly custom clothes might be a
mouse-click away. In the nearer term, flexible 3D printing could be a game
changer for the experimentalist — especially in the form of flexible circuit
You’ve no doubt encountered flexible boards and flat ribbon
connectors in some cameras. I have yet to see those flexible Li-Ion batteries
for sale in quantities less than a few thousand pieces, but flexible solar
panels, light panels, and conductive plastic sheet are available off the shelf.
For example, I’m having fun working with flexible — but not foldable —
electroluminescent (EL) panels, ribbons, and wires available from Adafruit
and SparkFun. It’s odd being able to trim the active area of the plastic-phosphor material with a pair of scissors without harming the light output.
I’m also working with transparent conductive plastic sheets available
from Adafruit. Although the indium tin oxide coating doesn’t accept solder,
it does work with conductive adhesives, pens, and paints to attach
components. It’s also possible to scrape away the coating to create flexible
circuit board tracings.
Of course, if you’re a fan of wearable computing, you’ve no doubt
worked with one of the wearable Arduino-compatible boards such as
FLORA from Adafruit and the LilyPad from SparkFun. While the button-sized boards are stiff conventional boards, they connect with the outside
world through metal-infused thread that’s as flexible as ordinary cotton.
Need a string of LEDs that bend and flex as you do? No problem. Just
use conductive cloth, ribbons, or thread to hook up your wearable flexible
circuit. SparkFun also sells a fabric kit that uses conductive fabric ribbon to
connect wearable LED modules for making billboard-style jackets and
shirts. The conductive thread — like the modules — is supposedly immune
to hand washing, but I haven’t put the claims to the test.
Flexibility seems poised to make a dent in the consumer electronics
world, as well. There are persistent rumors of curved screen cell phones
that can survive being sat on. Then there’s the curved face of the rumored
Apple’s ‘Dick Tracy’ watch. Flexible displays made of materials (such as
Corning’s Willow) are paving the way for flexible consumer devices. The
benefit of these and other technologies to robotics will undoubtedly be a
wealth of affordable flexible components that will enable anyone to
experiment with flexible platform designs. SV
Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
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ERVO FOR THE ROBOT INNOVATOR
6 SERVO 09.2013