MotorSkins uses an alternative approach to traditional soft robotics that is simpler and more energy-efficient, obviating the need for pumps and batteries. The garments for assisting lower-limb movement are only powered by the user's own gait, allowing them to be more active and autonomous.
A bioinspired textile platform: on metamaterials, science and design
MotorSkins originated at the cross-roads between material science and design: research into plant structures and their movement upon drying birthed a conceptual and practical journey focused on translating the principles of the former into design premises. Fundamentally, we believe in the potential of matter and material exploration, and this transpires into everything we do. We like to explore the possibilities of a given material and the properties that emerge when arranged in certain ways, making textile-based materials into metamaterials, looking into natural and biological shapes and principles for inspiration. Thus, we have developed a library of different geometries, structures and material arrangements that can perform movements such as pull, push, bend, or stiffen. These elements can then be applied to the body in various ways and combinations to perform specific functions such as assisting or preventing the bending of a joint. Torque, forces, anchoring points and various parameters are indeed of the utmost importance, but so are usability, comfort, acceptance and ease. By using a textile platform to construct a powered garment, we designed a soft exoskeleton for everyman.
A self-powered garment as a novel kind of soft robotic exoskeleton
The key question was how to bring about a paradigm shift in powered assistive technology by reducing complexity and weight while empowering and freeing the user. Through personal experience, we understood the potential for an albeit simple yet meaningful solution. The first key aspect was to break away from traditional hard frame powered exoskeletons by using soft-robotics, where flexible structures transmit force through tension or by transforming swelling and inflation into movement. In this, they are more versatile while drastically reducing complexity and costs. However, state-of-the-art fluid-driven robots depend on a pump for active actuation. This tether represents a significant drawback for their future application in exoskeletons for walking. The second key aspect was thus to eliminate the external pump and increase energy efficiency: our devices are powered by the user's own gait. We did this by placing chambers filled with fluid below the foot of the user. When the foot hits the floor, the fluid is transferred to the bioinspired hydraulic circuit and powers it. The result is a lightweight self-powered garment without batteries and motors: our hydrodynamic apparel.