The emergence of technologies that can impart actuation and sensing functions to fabrics spurred Yale University researchers to synthesize a robotic fabric that can alter its shape and stiffness. The new materials might find applications in smart clothing, self-deployable tents or robotic parachutes.

The researchers integrated functional fibers into conventional fabrics using typical textile manufacturing techniques. The synthesized materials incorporate actuating and variable-stiffness fibers, as well as printable in-fabric sensors, to allow for robotic closed-loop control of common fabrics while remaining lightweight and maintaining breathability.

A robotic fabric was produced using an epoxy embedded with particles of Field’s metal, which melts at the Robotic fabrics can be used to create smart adaptable clothing or self-deployable shelters. Source: Yale UniversityRobotic fabrics can be used to create smart adaptable clothing or self-deployable shelters. Source: Yale Universityrelatively low temperature of 62° C. When heated the textile becomes soft and malleable and becomes stiffer as it cools, locking into a specific shape as the particles solidify.

A conductive ink painted directly onto the fabric forms sensors enabling the material to react to changes detected in the environment. A Pickering emulsion, which uses non-toxic solvents to reduce ink viscosity, forms the basis of the conductive agent. The final component is a shape-memory alloy wire used in flat ribbon form to enable the fabric to reassume a programmed shape after being deformed.

The robotic fabrics were used to design an active wearable tourniquet, a transforming and load-bearing deployable structure, and an untethered, self-stowing airfoil.

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