Hey superhero fans, meet the researchers making real life Iron Man technology possible. In a new study, engineers from Korea and the United States have developed a wearable, stretchy patch that could help to bridge the divide between people and machines — and with benefits for the health of humans around the world.
The patch, about the size of a BandAid, sticks to your skin and picks up tiny signals coming from human muscles. In lab experiments, the researchers showed that humans could use these devices to operate robotic exoskeletons more efficiently — machines that try to mimic, and even enhance, the power of human muscles and bones.
The team hopes that one day, similar patches may help people with mobility issues move robotic arms or legs, or even assist doctors in diagnosing neurological illnesses.
“We get these natural signals from muscles and send them to outside equipment to give people more control,” said Jianliang Xiao, associate professor in Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Xiao led the study alongside Jae-Woong Jeong, associate professor in the School of Electrical Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). The team described its design, known as the stretchable microneedle adhesive patch (SNAP), this month in the journal Science Advances.
The secret to SNAP comes down to what the researchers call “microneedles.” The patches are integrated with an array of about 144 needles. They are made of silicon coated with gold and are less than a hundredth of an inch long, making them hard to see with the naked eye.
The idea of small needles poking your body may sound scary, but the team’s microneedles only enter the top layer of your skin and aren’t long enough to reach the body’s pain sensors. That makes the patches surprisingly comfortable to wear, even for long periods.
“People can wear these patches for a week, and we see hardly any skin irritation,” Jeong…