As the field of robotics become ever more advanced, scientists are turning to the question of how best to integrate them seamlessly into our lives. The latest advance is the development of self-healing robots, which are capable of repairing their own damage. Here, we explore how these new robots came to be, and what use they may find in the future.
Why build a self-healing robot?
One of the aspects of robotics that has most often captured the attention of our founder Tej Kohli is the enormous range of activities robots may, in the not too distant future, be capable of performing – ranging from end-of-life care to the autonomous robotic craft proposed by NASA to explore the most inhospitable reaches of our solar system.
However, many of these breakthroughs in robotic technology face a very similar barrier – balancing durability with usability. Until recently, roboticists have struggled to build designs that are robust and capable of withstanding damage without resorting to tough materials such as metals or heavy plastics. These can be difficult and costly to repair, but they also make the current generation of robots difficult to integrate into certain roles – robots designed to care for the elderly and infirm must be robust, while still being able to carry out their tasks without causing their patients discomfort and distress, for example.
Now, a team in Brussels have developed a major new breakthrough – soft robots constructed from a jelly-like material, which can stitch themselves back together and recover from injury.
How do they work?
The self-healing robots have been designed by a team from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and are built from a new, specially designed material. The new material is comprised from a lattice of temperature sensitive polymers, which breaks down when exposed to moderate heat for around 40 minutes, then knits back together during cooling – giving it the ability to ‘heal’ any damage it has sustained.
The team behind the robots claim that damage caused by scalpel blades can be fixed within 24 hours of heat exposure, and that the process leaves no visible scarring or weak spots. Their next goal is to develop ways of monitoring the health of the soft robots.
What are the implications?
As is so often the case with a field as misunderstood as robotics, this development has caused several sensationalist headlines about armies of invincible killer robots out to enslave us all. The truth is both more mundane and yet far more revolutionary.
The option of soft robots greatly increases the variety of roles and tasks that can realistically be carried out by a robot. Among the potential applications which have been explored for soft robots already are handling delicate products in the food industry and as a tool for injury rehabilitation and prosthetics. The ability of robots employed in such everyday activities to self-heal could make help remove some of the barriers to their widespread use – instead of having to send your expensive robot back to the specialists for complex, costly repairs, it will simply heal itself. If we turn to more ambitious ventures, self-healing capabilities would be a major asset to NASA’s planned exploratory robots.
The ability of robots to self-heal has the potential to make them cheaper, safer and more widely available – meaning this could be a major new step on the path towards an automated future. Although this is a future that some view with a wary eye, for our founder Tej Kohli news of its journey closer to reality is a cause for anticipation – he remains convinced that with the right intentions and wisdom behind them, disruptive technologies such as this are the key to unlocking a better future for us all.