Researchers at MIT, alongside collaborators from Uppsala University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, developed a ‘robotic textile’ that consists of an array of actuatable fibers. The fiber actuators are powered using compressed air, and can perform an impressive array of movements. Garments made using such fibers can sense how they’re stretched and compressed, and can provide tactile feedback at the same time. Although these fabrics have a multitude of uses, the researchers initially propose that the technology could assist patients in recovering breathing patterns after surgery or respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19.
The system consists of thin, flexible fibers with a fluid core that can contain either air or a liquid that can be compressed or released to actuate the fibers, thereby making them act like artificial muscle fibers. The flexibility and small profile of the fibers allows them to be sewn or woven into fabrics, and their thin structures contain sensors that can detect how much the fibers stretch during movement.
The fibers consist of five layers: a fluid channel, a surrounding silicone layer, a stretchable sensor to monitor stretching during use, a braided polymer mesh, and a non-stretchy filament to prevent overextension.
When incorporated into garments, the fibers have numerous applications, not all of them medical. For instance, the researchers suggest that they could help singers perfect their breathing technique. An experienced singer could use the device to create an ‘imprint’ of the correct breathing technique, and then a novice could wear the garment and it would prompt them to activate specific muscles while singing.
The fibers can respond very quickly, and rapidly provide tactile feedback during use. However, refining respiratory muscle control would also be helpful for those who are experiencing respiratory difficulties because of surgery or the aftermath of a respiratory illness such as COVID-19. Indeed, the garments could be useful for a wide variety of muscle training applications for rehabilitation.
In the next steps, the researchers wish to miniaturize the system that supplies compressed air and the electrical components of the system, while also increasing the potential length of the manufactured fibers. “Everybody has to breathe. Breathing has a major impact on productivity, confidence, and performance,” said Hiroshi Ishii, a researcher involved in the study, via an MIT announcement. “Breathing is important for singing, but also this can help when recovering from surgery or depression. For example, breathing is so important for meditation.”
See a video about the technology:
Study in Association for Computing Machinery’s User Interface Software and Technology online conference: OmniFiber: Integrated Fluidic Fiber Actuators for Weaving Movement based Interactions into the ‘Fabric of Everyday Life’