With rapid advancements underway in the field of robotic materials, robotic surgeries, self-adjusting camouflage and prosthetic limbs that can give people back their sense of touch could all be a reality in a few years.
What if a prosthetic limb could impart a sense of touch, allowing a patient to once again feel with the hand they may have lost? Or, what if military vehicles and uniforms could perfectly camouflage themselves with any environment they find themselves in? All of these and more could become reality in just a few short years with rapid advancements underway in the field of robotic materials.
Robotic materials are a type of composite material that incorporate computation, communication, sensing, or actuation within the material itself. They are a type of metamaterial – a macroscopic composite which is man-made and designed to optimize a response to a specific excitation which is not found in nature. Robotic materials are known as computational metamaterials because they are fully programmable. Instead of producing a response to an excitation through purely physical or mechanical means, robotic materials produce that response through sensing, actuation, and computer logic.
In 1991, Toffoli and Margolus coined the term programmable matter, a closely related predecessor to robotic materials. Programmable matter describes dense arrays of computing elements that can solve complex computational problems such as material system simulations. Later, the term evolved to describe materials made of building blocks (or catoms) which were fully reconfigurable, meaning that the materials’ physical properties could be changed arbitrarily. More recently, robotic materials have built upon that concept, but are more focused on structural properties that can be obtained from the embedding polymers and less on the ability to universally change the properties of the material.
Robotic materials are currently used in real-world applications such as camouflage, robotic skins, load balancing, and increasing the autonomy of robots by moving some of the computational functions into the material of the robot. In the research world, robotic materials are used in many different fields like composite materials, swarm intelligence, sensor networks, and distributed algorithms. Unlike any of these fields alone, robotic materials combine many complex elements including sensors, actuators, communication and structural design, and distributed algorithms. Because there are so many systems present, interdisciplinary research teams are required in most cases to delicately balance the effects of so many variables.
In the future, robotic materials can be expanded for nearly any application. The benefits of these materials lie largely in their versatility and ability to accomplish any task that conventional materials can achieve, usually with much fewer parts and less material. This leads to things like phone cases that change colors or tabletops that can either heat or cool your food depending on your needs at the time.