Multi-Modal Oceanographic Sensing with Hybrid Soft Electronic Skin

Lead PI:  Carmel Majidi, Carnegie Mellon University
Start Year: 2018 | Duration: 3 years
Partners: Lifeware Labs, LLC

The objective of this project is to engineer and validate a “hybrid” soft electronic skin for multi-modal oceanographic sensing. The hybrid architecture will combine materials and technologies in CMOS/MEMS-based microelectronics with emerging paradigms in soft-matter electronics. The result will be a thin and elastic sensor array that can cover the surface of a diver suit, diver equipment, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), or marine organism without constraining the natural mechanics of the host. In general, the hybrid microchip-integrated soft circuit would function like an “electronic sticker” or “tattoo” that would augment the native sensing modalities of the host system without requiring costly, labor intensive hardware alterations. When integrated into a diver suit or used for animal tagging, the circuit could also be used to make intimate contact with soft tissue and perform physiological monitoring.

Goal: Soft electronic skin that enables underwater vehicles, divers, and soft robotic platforms to explore their environment through multi-modal sensing and vision. These sensorized films will incorporate digital ICs and novel sensing architectures, conform to arbitrary 3D surfaces, remain functional under water, and interface through wired or wireless connections.

Efforts in this project will primarily focus on (i) multi-modal functionality, (ii) large area coverage, and (iii) robust wireless interfacing for underwater autonomous vehicles, diver equipment and suits, and soft robotic end effectors. The proposed research objectives will be accomplished by pursuing the following technical aims:

  • Task 1: Electronic skin fabrication – Design, fabrication, and testing of soft stretchable circuits that can conform to irregularly-shaped 3D surfaces over a large area; on-board microelectronics for sensing, vision, signal processing, memory, and data transmission; compatible with diver suits and soft robotic systems;
  • Task 2: Interfacing & Underwater Evaluation – Incorporation of electronic skins into autonomous underwater vehicles (e.g. Bluefin HAUV), divers suits, and soft robotic end effectors. We will perform shallow-water (3m) validation of surface-mounted sensing skin on selected host systems using the water tank testing facility in the CMU Field Robotics Center. If possible, we also plan to perform harbor-site testing in Y3.
  • Task 3: Novel Soft Sensors – Utilize techniques in soft-matter engineering developed by the Integrated Soft Materials Lab (PI: Majidi) to engineer novel material architectures capable of new physical, chemical, and biological sensing. As necessary, sensors will incorporate soft microfluidics, photonics, and chemically-responsive materials. An area of special focus will be the development of “electronic tattoos” that are ultrathin and naturally adhere to the skin of a marine organism without the need for glue.

Impact on Oceanography – As in other fields of Earth science, oceanography largely depends on rigid hardware for scientific instrumentation, sample collection, signal processing and transmission, and device mobility. While such hardware is adequate for a wide range of tasks in oceanographic mapping and forecasting, it is limited in its ability to physically interact with marine life or maneuver in highly confined spaces. The proposed research will advance oceanographic research by accelerating progress in “soft-matter technologies” that overcome the limitations of rigid hardware by matching the size, density, and mechanical compliance of natural marine organisms. This is particularly enabling for animal tagging and sensing – i.e. the proposed electronics are adequately soft, lightweight, and robust so that they can collect physiological and environmental data over an extended time period without interfering with the animal’s natural physical behavior. In the longer term, these technologies could be incorporated into marine-inspired soft robots that could accurately track the behaviors and environmental conditions of their natural counterparts.