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Watch robotic ‘skins’ give life to inanimate toys

Think back to your favorite childhood toy—maybe it was a stuffed giraffe or a rag doll. No matter how much you loved it, it probably couldn’t walk or gallop on its own. A new kind of robotic “skin” could change that by giving soft, inanimate objects the ability to creep across hard surfaces.

The skins are made of strips of electronic air valves encased in fabric or elastic slips—the researchers used Spandex in one case—that squeeze an object’s surface, similar to how a blood pressure cuff squeezes your arm. But instead of pushing with the same force all around, researchers can remotely control the skins to squeeze only certain places, allowing for specific movements.

The scientists clothed numerous objects with the flexible material, including a soft cylinder and a stuffed horse. They could manipulate the cylinder to bend at different points and even crawl across the table, while the horse could trot around—all by changing where they placed the skins and how they made them squeeze, the team reports today in Science Robotics.

But the skins can do much more than just animate your favorite toy. By coupling them with other technology, scientists can repurpose one object to do the task of many. For instance, the team outfitted that same soft cylinder with a tiny camera, giving the once inanimate tube the ability to see and to inch around on its own. Such worm-bots could be used to more affordably explore remote locations where humans can’t easily venture, like between the rocks of rubble and the depths of caverns.