There's no denying that robots are great at certain tasks, but take most of them out of the specific role they were designed for and they'll struggle. In an effort to make robots that are more adaptable, Yale researchers have developed "robotic skins" that can be fitted over a range of everyday objects, like soft toys or pieces of foam, to turn them into robots programmed for different tasks.

The skins are simple enough – they're essentially sheets of elastic material with sensors and actuators embedded in them. Wrap them around certain objects and they can make them move, grab or sense their surroundings. The idea is that the skins are versatile enough that people can cobble together their own makeshift robots easily, out of objects already on hand, for a range of tasks. More detailed actions could be done by layering skins on top of one another.

"We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task – locomotion, for example – and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object," says Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, lead researcher on the project. "We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device."

So far, the researchers have demonstrated the potential of the robotic skins with a few creations. They've made a stuffed horse toy walk by wrapping the skins around its legs, made a foam cylinder crawl like a worm, a gripper claw that can move objects, and a wearable device that can sense when a person is slouching and vibrate to tell them to sit up straight.

The tech was developed with NASA's help, and the original idea came about when the agency put out a call for multipurpose robotic materials like these. Since weight is at a premium in space, there's not much room for devices that are too specialized, and these robotic skins could be repurposed on the fly according to what astronauts need for a given job.

"One of the main things I considered was the importance of multifunctionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable," says Kramer-Bottiglio. "The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns?"

The research was published in the journal Science Robotics. Check out the robotic skins in action in the video below.

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