Slipping Sheets Map Multiple Bends In This Ingenious Flex Sensor

When thoughts turn to measuring the degree to which something bends, it’s pretty likely that strain gauges or some kind of encoders on a linkage come to mind. Things could be much simpler in the world of flex measurement, though, if [Fereshteh Shahmiri] and [Paul H. Dietz]’s capacitive multi-bend flex sensor catches on.

This is one of those ideas that seems so obvious that you don’t know why it hasn’t been tried before. The basic idea is to leverage the geometry of layered materials that slip past each other when bent. Think of the way the pages of a hardbound book feather out when you open it, and you’ll get the idea. In the case of the ShArc (“Shift Arc”) sensor, the front and back covers of the book are flexible PCBs with a series of overlapping pads. Between these PCBs are a number of plain polyimide spacer strips. All the strips of the sensor are anchored at one end, and everything is held together with an elastic sleeve. As the ShArc is bent, the positions of the electrodes on the top and bottom layers shift relative to each other, changing the capacitance across them. From the capacitance measurements and the known position of each pad, a microcontroller can easily calculate the bend radius at each point and infer the curvature of the whole strip.

The video below shows how the ShArc works, as well as several applications for the technology. The obvious use as a flex sensor for the human hand is most impressive — it could vastly simplify [Will Cogley]’s biomimetic hand controller — but such sensors could be put to work in any system that bends. And as a bonus, it looks pretty simple to build one at home.

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The Flexible Permanence Of Copper Tape Circuits

Somewhere between shoving components into a breadboard temporarily and committing them to a piece of protoboard or a PCB lies the copper tape method. This flexible Manhattan-style method of circuitry formed the basis for [Bunnie Huang]’s Chibitronics startup, and has since inspired many to stop etching boards and start fetching hoards of copper tape.

[Hales] hit the ground running when he learned about this method, and has made many a copper tape circuit in the last year or so. He offers several nice tips on his site that speak from experience with this method, and he’ll even show you how to easily work an SMD breakout board into the mix.

Generally speaking, [Hales] prefers plywood as the substrate to paper or cardboard for durability. He starts by drawing out the circuit and planning where all the tape traces will go and how wide they need to be. Then he lays out copper traces and pads, rubs the tape against the substrate to make it adhere strongly, and reinforces joints and laps with solder before adding the components. As you can see, copper tape circuits can get pretty complicated if you use Kapton tape as insulation between stacked layers of traces.

Copper and Kapton (polyimide) tape are just two of the many useful tapes you may not be aware of. Stick with us a moment and check out [Nava Whiteford]’s exploration of various adhesive marvels.

New Contest: Flexible PCBs

The now-humble PCB was revolutionary when it came along, and the whole ecosystem that evolved around it has been a game changer in electronic design. But the PCB is just so… flat. Planar. Two-dimensional. As useful as it is, it gets a little dull sometimes.

Here’s your chance to break out of Flatland and explore the third dimension of circuit design with our brand new Flexible PCB Contest.

We’ve teamed up with Digi-Key for this contest. Digi-Key’s generous sponsorship means 60 contest winners will receive free fabrication of three copies of their flexible PCB design, manufactured through the expertise of OSH Park. So now you can get your flex on with wearables, sensors, or whatever else you can think of that needs a flexible PCB.

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Flexible Battery Meter Bends Over Backward To Work

A lithium-ion battery tester seems like a simple project, at least electrically. But when you start thinking about the physical problem of dealing with a huge range of battery sizes, things get a little more complicated. Sure, you can 3D-print adapters and jigs to accommodate the different batteries, or you can cheat a bit and put the charger and tester circuit on a flexible PCB.

Maybe it’s the Kapton talking, but we really like the look of [Androkavo]’s project. The idea is simple – rather than use a rigid FR4 printed circuit board, a flexible polyimide film PCB a little longer than the biggest battery to be tested was fabricated. With large contacts on each end, the board can just be looped across the battery to take a reading. For charging, neodymium magnets on the other side of the board keep the charger in contact with the battery. The circuit itself is built around an STM8S003 8-bit microcontroller and a handful of discrete components. There’s a bar graph display for battery voltage that covers 2.0 to 4.9 volts, and a USB port for charging. The charger works with everything from the big 21700 cells down to the short 14500s. With the help of another magnet to keep the board from bending too sharply, even the diminutive 10180 can be charged. Check out the video below, which has some of the most relaxing music and best microscope shots of SMD soldering we’ve seen.

Flexible PCBs are versatile things. Not only can they make projects like this successful, but they can also wriggle around, swim, or even play music.

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