Functionalized Polymers Offer Great Potential for Future Robotics

In the future we will all have a completely new type of partner, one who really will lend a helping hand when it comes to the housework. According to statistics from the International Federation of Robotics, the number of robots diligently completing chores in private households worldwide will have increased from two million in 2004 to nine million by the end of 2008. And this growth is set to accelerate. Two trends in particular are responsible for this development - the aging of the population, which means there are fewer people available to act as carers, and the change in our lifestyles. The number of both one-person households and life partnerships where both partners work is on the increase. What’s more, as our working lives get increasingly busy, it is our housework that suffers.

To help meet the growing demand for partner and service robots, Bayer MaterialScience AG has established a global "Robotics" working group. "Our work in the field of robotics focuses primarily on high-tech functionalized polymer materials. These materials offer outstanding development potential for new material solutions that open up completely new opportunities and dimensions in the design and construction of robots," explains Dr. Andrea Maier-Richter, a specialist in the New Business section of Bayer MaterialScience that is tasked with identifying new markets and business opportunities.

The company is already working with key partners in the robotics sector on several projects. One such project is the current version of the Care-O-bot®, a service robot designed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart. The arm and grabber of the robot have been developed by SCHUNK GmbH & Co. KG, which is based in Lauffen am Neckar, Germany. Care-O-bot® is able to move among people safely and reliably and can complete simple transport tasks in the home.

To cover the external moving parts of the robot, Bayer MaterialScience has developed a polyurethane-based elastic skin that is designed to be similar to human skin. A particular challenge laid down by the Fraunhofer IPA was that the outer casing should be designed so that as few wrinkles as possible are formed when the robot is in motion. The solution was a brand new combination of materials, for which Bayer MaterialScience has lodged a patent application. The new combination consists of the ultra light and highly flexible polyurethane foam HyperNova® coated with the polyurethane dispersion frothed foam Impranil®, which forms the thin, continuous outer skin. Although extremely flexible, this composite material is also very strong and resistant to cleaning agents and everyday chemicals. It also has an extremely attractive look and feel. The new material combination is based on the modular principle and can be customized in terms of thickness, density, surface texture and color.

Functionalized polymer materials - a diverse range of application options There are numerous potential applications for intelligent functionalized polymer materials in robotics. The more lightweight a robot is, the lower its energy consumption and therefore the longer its batteries last before they need to be recharged. As a result, lightweight construction with plastics plays a key role in robotics. For example, Baytubes® carbon nanotubes from Bayer MaterialScience can be used to improve the stiffness and strength of thermoplastics and polyurethane systems, which can then be made into housing sections and heavy-duty micromechanical components.

Baytubes® can also be used to make plastics electrically conductive, which would for example allow the artificial plastic skin of a robot to exhibit sensory capabilities. One truly visionary development goal is to use polymers that can be electrically activated as artificial muscles: "We have acquired extensive know-how about the requirements and needs of robot manufacturers and developers. This in turn has enabled us to derive a number of approaches as to how our plastics should function," explains Maier-Richter.

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