Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

Scientists Develop Robots That Can Heal Themselves

Aug 11, 2019 07:19 AM EDT

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Scientists and engineers are now leaning more towards developing soft and flexible robots made from plastic materials that are, in some way, like jelly.  This is to answer the increasing demand in the medical field to carry out minor surgical procedures.  They have developed robots that are durable enough to perform human activity, but soft enough so that it does not cause any damage, not even to a small piece of fruit.  These so-called soft robots tend to be more adaptable when it comes to accomplishing tasks.  But because of their gentle nature, soft robots are prone to damage, and the cost for replacement of their small parts is not cheap.

In a recent study by scientists at the Free University of Brussels and the University of Cambridge, self-healing robots are aimed to be developed, with the use of elastomers, as they report in Science Robotics.  The network of elastomers, which are basically more elastic and rubbery polymers, used in the research has the ability to "heal" or repair itself with the use of heat.  Seppe Terryn, a graduate of the University of Brussels, described it as being like a 3D spider web.  When heated, the polymers increase mobility at the molecular level, causing it to slowly flow into a cut and then seal it afterward.  It was as if the robots, because of their polymeric composition, were allowed to hurt themselves, but heal themselves as well.

The researchers first built the robots as they normally would, and then tested their healing capability by ripping or cutting them.  They then exposed the robots to heat at 80 degrees Celsius.  After observation for 40 minutes, the devices were already able to heal themselves.  The robots were then left at room temperature, 25 degrees Celsius, for 24 hours.  After this, they were found to have restored their strength and flexibility.

Professor Bram Vanderborght from the Free University of Brussels mentions how they have been working on the concept for the past few years.  Their goal is to ensure that robots used in everyday activities are both safe and sustainable.  He says that with this new development, we can move past costly repairs or replacement of parts when the delicate robots are damaged.

Terryn mentions that the next step in their research is to incorporate sensors in the design so that the robots can detect when they have been damaged.  The team hopes to develop automated devices in the future, in order to avoid the need for heat to stimulate the system.

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