Since arriving at Purdue, one mechanical engineering professor has been perfecting soft robotics and is now working with NASA to expand the project further.

Mechanical engineering assistant professor Rebecca Kramer came to Purdue two years ago and has begun working on soft robotics and scalable manufacturing with soft active materials. With funding from NASA, her lab is developing soft, versatile robots for extraterrestrial landscape exploration. These robots are designed to be impact resistant, resilient and robust. Another application for the soft robots is search-and-rescue missions, where the robots can squeeze through cracks and crevices of, for example, a collapsed building, to identify resources and survivors that may be buried underneath.

“The goal is to integrate as many functions as possible into as few materials as possible so that a single, lightweight robot can perform a variety of complex tasks,” said Kramer.

Kramer’s lab - the fabrication laboratory, known as the “Faboratory” – is housed in the basement of the mechanical engineering building. In the lab, her students work on exploiting the functions of soft materials in order to embed activity and intelligence into those materials. One such project has taken the form of wearable robotic skins and fabrics, which will be unlike any of the wearable technologies that are trending right now. Kramer’s wearable robots will be worn either under clothing or will be integrated directly in our clothing to provide motion assistance and feedback to the user without constricting their natural range of motion. One application for this technology may be military uniforms that would increase the carrying capacity or endurance of soldiers.

Along with applications in the military, Kramer is also teaming up with a yoga clothing company. The company hopes to incorporate the technology into its clothes so that customers can get real-time feedback about their yoga poses.

Edward White, a second year Ph.D. student in manufacturing technologies for soft robotics, said that he loves how they are manufacturing soft robots in new ways.

“It’s great how interdisciplinary it is being able to bring in different subject matter experts and do cutting edge research,” said White.

Kramer was named to the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Who are Moving the World Forward list in 2015 for her extensive research with manufacturing technology. She has received recent awards from NASA and NSF to develop her technology for planetary exploration and stretchable electronics, respectively.

“Soft robotics is a very new idea,” said Kramer. “I have always liked manufacturing and making things. My lab tries to exploit the inherent properties of soft, active materials during processing to make things that have never existed before.”

This article has been updated from The Exponent's print version.

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