The Future is Here: Morphable Skins’s cars could have a feature that will reduce wind drag and allow them to go faster: smart, morphing skins that form dimples or go smooth on command. It is all part of a growing field of mechanics that seeks to make surfaces “smart”, and it is being considered for everything from increasing aerodynamics to reducing the damage caused by hurricanes and high winds.

The research comes from MIT, where engineers have developed a smart curved surface that can morph at will to reduce drag. Known as a “smorph” (short for smart morphable surface), they were able to get their creation to wrinkle into a dimpled pattern similar to a golf ball’s, with similar aerodynamic properties. In short, when the smorph wrinkles, it is able to travel faster than if it were smooth.

smorphScientists and golfers alike have long known that the dimples on the surface of a golf ball allow it to drastically reduce drag and travel much farther than would otherwise be possible. This happens because the small dents hold the airflow near the surface of ball for a longer time. This reduces the size of the wake, or zone of turbulence, as the ball takes off. However, the mechanics employed here are a bit more complex.

In recent years, in-depth aerodynamic studies have shown that the dimples reduce drag only at lower speeds. As you move toward faster speeds, the advantage of irregularities disappears and a smooth surface becomes the best way to minimize the wake. Now, researchers at MIT have married the best of both worlds by developing a surface that can it’s smoothness on the fly to maximize aerodynamic efficiency at all speeds.

Smorph_0The smorph manages to change its shape by changing the balance between its materials. Basically, an empty core is surrounded by two different polymers. One is thick and squishy, while the outermost layer is stiff skin. As the volume of  a the inner layer is reduced by sucking air out of its hollow core, the core shrinks. The squishy layer is soft enough to contract smoothly, but the skin is forced to wrinkle. The trick is controlling exactly how a smorph wrinkles.

Because the dimples look so much like those on a golf ball’s surface, the researchers were inspired to test their creation in a wind tunnel. Sure enough, when the researchers tested the smorph in a wind tunnel, they found that it was about twice as aerodynamically efficient when dimpled. But the sheath of vortices only form at relatively low speeds, and then convert back to a smooth surface at higher speeds in order to maintain aerodynamic velocity.

smorph_1This is where smorphs could offer a huge advantage. By being able to morph to control drag, they could be especially useful in building structures that won’t collapse or incur significant damage when facing very high winds – one example being the so-called radomes, the spherical, weatherproof domes that enclose radar antennas. The researchers also say that the materials could also be used to minimize drag in cars in order to maximize fuel efficiency.

Earlier this year, Reis won an NSF grant to keep developing smorphs, which he hopes to someday scale up to use on cars, aircraft, and even buildings. There are some issues to overcome before this happens though, such as the fact that hexagonal dimples are unstable on flat surfaces. So far smorphs have only been used on a round, ball shape, but Reis and his co-authors believe they can figure out how to reproduce the pattern on slightly curved surfaces.

Alongside such concepts as morphing wings and self-adjusting and reconfigurable robots, the creation of surfaces that can change shape in order to better accommodate airflow, or be optimal for different tasks, is part of the manufacturing revolution that seeks to replace rigid structures and products with something that can adapt, flow and transform depending on what is being asked of it.

And be sure to check out this video from MIT of the smorph in action:


The Future is Here: Roombot Transforming Furniture

roombots_tableRobotic arms and other mechanisms have long been used to make or assemble furniture; but thus far, no one has ever created robots that are capable of becoming furniture. However, Swiss researchers are aiming to change that with Roombots, a brand of reconfigurable robotic modules that connect to each other to change shape and transform into different types of furniture, based on the needs and specifications of users.

Created by the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the self-assembling Roombots attach to each other via connectors which enables them to take on the desired shape. The team’s main goal is to create self-assembling interactive furniture that can be used in a variety of ways. They were designed primarily for the sake of helping the disabled or elderly by morphing to suit their needs.

roombots_unpackLike LEGO bricks, Roombots can be stacked upon each other to create various structures and/or combined with furniture and other objects, changing not only their shape, but also and functionality. For instance, a person lying down on a Roombot bed could slowly be moved into a seated position, or a table could scoot over to a corner or tilt itself to help a book slide into a person’s hands. The team has solved a number of significant milestones, such as the having the Roombots move freely, to bring all this multi-functionality closer.

Each 22 cm-long module (which is made up of four half-spheres) has a wireless connection, a battery, and three motors that allow the module to pivot with three degrees of freedom. Each modules also has retractable “claws” that are used to attach to other pieces to form larger structures. With a series of rotations and connections, the modules can change shape and become any of a variety of objects. A special surface with holes adapted to the Roombots’ mechanical claws can also allow the modules to anchor to a wall or floor.

roombots_configThe Roombots can even climb up a wall or over a step, when the surface is outfitted with connector plates. They’re are also capable of picking up connector plates and arranging them to form, say, a table’s surface. Massimo Vespignani, a PhD student at BioRob, explained the purpose of this design and the advantages in a recent interview with Gizmag:

We start from a group of Roombot modules that might be stacked together for storage. The modules detach from this pile to form structures of two or more modules. At this point they can start moving around the room in what we call off-grid locomotion…

A single module can autonomously reach any position on a plane (this being on the floor, walls, or ceiling), and overcome a concave edge. In order to go over convex edges two modules need to collaborate…

The advantage would be that the modules can be tightly packed together for transportation and then can reconfigure into any type of structure (for example a robotic manipulator)…

We can ‘augment’ existing furniture by placing compatible connectors on it and attaching Roombots modules to allow it to move around the house.

roombots_boxThe range of applications for these kind of robotics is virtually infinite. For example, as seen in the video below, a series of Roombots as feet on a table that not only let it move around the room and come to the owner, but adjust its height as well. Auke Ijspeert, head of the Biorob, envisions that this type of customization could be used for physically challenged people who could greatly benefit from furniture that adapts to their needs and movements.

As he said in a recent statement:

It could be very useful for disabled individuals to be able to ask objects to come closer to them, or to move out of the way. [They could also be used as] ‘Lego blocks’ [for makers to] find their own function and applications.

Meanwhile, design students at ENSCI Les Ateliers in France have come up with several more ideas for uses of Roombots, such as flower pots that can move from window to window around a building and modular lighting components and sound systems. Similar to the MIT’s more complex self-assembling M-Blocks – which are programmable cube robots with no external moving parts – Roombots represent a step in the direction of self-assembling robots that are capable of taking on just about any task.

roombotsFor instance, imagine a series of small robotic modules that could be used for tasks like repairing bridges or buildings during emergencies. Simply release them from their container and feed them the instructions, and they assemble to prop up an earthquake-stricken structure or a fallen bridge. At the same time, it is a step in the direction of smart matter and nanotechnology, a futuristic vision that sees the very building blocks of everyday objects as programmable, reconfiguring materials that can shape or properties as needed.

To get a closer, more detailed idea of what the Roombot can do, check out the video below from EPFL News: