EU scientists develop self-repairing machines

Through robotic hands they would also be able to sense and fix damage without human intervention

Photo: Bram Vanderborght (Robotics) Grippers used for fruit and vegetable picking and placing are smooth to prevent bacteria and fungus growth.

From picking fruit to carrying out minor surgery, soft robotic hands made from jelly-like plastic are thought by scientists to be the future solution to many human needs. But being gentle and soft enough to avoid damaging fruit or flesh has made the robots prone to damage and left them largely impractical for use in the real world. Until now.

An European Commission-funded project, led by scientists at the Free University of Brussels and the University of Cambridge, claims it is in the process of developing “self-healing” robots that can feel pain, sense damage, and even repair themselves without any human intervention. 

The soft robotic hands are made through 3D printing and able to carry out a wide variety of applications, from grabbing delicate and soft objects in the food industry to performing minimally invasive surgery. They could also play an important role in creating lifelike prosthetics. However, the soft materials also make them susceptible to damage from sharp objects or excessive pressure. Thus, it is important to mention that the EU team of researchers has already successfully developed polymers that can heal themselves by creating new bonds after about 40 minutes.

Now, the next step will be to embed sensor fibres in the polymer which can detect where the damage is located. The end goal is to make the healing automated, avoiding the current need for heat to activate the system, through the touch of a human hand. This would, as a result, exclude the need of additional heating devices and costs. Nevertheless, trials so far suggest the healing can take only second or up to a week in room temperature conditions, depending on the extent and location of the damage,

Prof. Bram Vanderborght, from the Free University of Brussels (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), who is managing the project, said the research was at the forefront of developing a new generation of robotics.

“Over the past few years, we have already taken the first steps in creating self-healing materials for robots," he told The Guardian.

“With this research we want to continue and, above all, ensure that robots that are used in our working environment are safer, but also more sustainable. Due to the self-repair mechanism of this new kind of robots, complex, costly repairs may be a thing of the past,” he addded.

This shift is part of a wider future trend in which lower skilled jobs in the future are likely to be replaced by robots. A recent employment outlook from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a coalition consisting of 36 countries across the world, said that within the next two decades half of all jobs will be substantially transformed by technology. In some cases, that will mean workers losing their jobs outright - the OECD estimates 14% of jobs will be completely automated in the next two decades - while others, 32% of jobs, will be vastly different from what they look like now.

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