Robots Can Heal Themselves


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Cutting your hand, tearing a muscle, or even breaking a bone - these are all injuries that heal over time. Researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel have also endowed robots with this self-healing property, as illustrated in their study “Self-healing soft pneumatic robots”, published in Science Robotics.

Research into soft robots has been underway for some time at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Inspired by the soft tissue from which humans and many other organisms are made, these robots are constructed from flexible materials. Their flexibility allows soft robots to be used for countless applications. They are used to grab delicate and soft objects in the food industry or in minimally invasive surgery. They also play an important role in rehabilitation and arm prostheses. The new technology was also picked up by Disney. The movie “Big Hero 6” introduces the inflatable robot, Baymax, a soft robot based on a working prototype. Being made from soft materials, soft robots can perform tasks in dynamic work environments while ensuring safe contact with humans. However, the soft materials also make them susceptible to damage caused by sharp objects or excessive pressure. Damaged components must be replaced to avoid the robot ending up on the scrap heap.

Rubbery polymers

In a prestigious European ERC project at the VUB, scientists have come up with a method that enables soft robots to completely heal from such damage. They build soft robots made completely from rubbery polymers with built-in healing capacity. When damaged, these materials first recover their original shape and then heal completely. This principle was applied in three self-healing robotic components: a gripper, a robotic hand, and an artificial muscle. These resilient, pneumatic components were damaged under controlled conditions, to test whether the scientific principle also works in practice. The results were most satisfactory: realistic damage could be healed completely without leaving any weak spots. After healing, the prototypes were able to fully resume their tasks.

Prof. Bram Vanderborght of BruBotics and Flanders Make: “The outcome of the research opens up promising perspectives. Robots can not only be made lighter and safer, they will also be able to work longer independently without requiring constant repairs.”

Self-healing soft pneumatic robots. Seppe Terryn, Joost Brancart, Dirk Lefeber, Guy Van Assche and Bram Vanderborght.

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