“In this research, we propose to construct soft robotics entirely out of self-healing elastomers. On the basis of healing capacities found in nature, these polymers are given the ability to heal microscopic and macroscopic damage.”
That doesn’t sound so bad … unless you add the following three words:
“I’ll be back.”
Scientists at the Brije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium have invented robots with self-healing appendages that can “recover” after being stabbed, cut, smashed, shot, blown to bot bits or anything else its human overlords can do to it. OK, stabbed and cut – yes. The rest? Those capabilities aren’t available … yet.
The process, described in the current edition of the Science Robotics Journal , is surprisingly simple. The team built robotic arms and grippers covered with soft rubbery polymers. When bumped, bruised or dented, the polymers bounce back to their original shapes on their own almost immediately. When cut or gouged, no bandage is needed to stop any bleeding or polymer leakage and the robot doesn’t require a painkiller or workmen’s compensation. All it needs is a little heat and a little time. According to the study, the material will close and seal after just 40 minutes at 80 degrees C (176 degrees F) and will return to full strength and flexibility after 24 hours at 25 degrees C (77 degrees F).
This seemingly slow but miraculous healing depends on the soft polymer’s network of cross links that allow the heat-induced process known as the Diels-Alder reaction to take place. According to professor and researcher Bram Vanderborght of VUB in an interview with Wired UK, the heat causes the cross link molecules to break, creating mobility that allows them to realign and, when the heat is removed, close the gaps, heal the ‘flesh’ and completely repair the damage.
"Realistic damage could be healed completely without leaving any weak spot. The prototypes were able to fully resume their tasks."
If you just imagined a robot looking at a human holding a blowtorch to its severed finger and yelling, “Come on! Hurry up! I’ve got work to do!”, you’re not far off. Vanderborght already sees applications for the self-healing robots with the soft polymer hands in the grocery industry -- for picking up delicate items – and on factory floors where the machines that smash human thumbs and cut off fingers will not be held liable when doing the same thing to a robot’s self-healing hand.
Will the robot sneer at the hurtful factory machine and snarl, “I’ll be back” Only time will tell.