Tech Focus: R&D

Self-healing and sustainable robots that ‘feel pain’

| Author / Editor: Rainer Klose / Steffen Donath

A robotic hand made from self-healing material.
A robotic hand made from self-healing material. (Source: Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

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When working with robots, safety is of utmost importance. To ensure this, flexible materials are used. Robot maintenance can be cost-intensive. Self-healing robots are looking to change this.

Over the next three years, researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris) and Empa will be collaborating with the Dutch polymer manufacturer, Suprapolix, on the next generation of robots — (soft) robots that ‘feel pain’ and heal themselves. The partners can also count on three million euro of support from the European Commission.

Soon, robots will not only be found in factories and laboratories, but will be assisting us in our immediate environment. They will help us in the household, reducing our workloads and making our lives safer. Robots will work with us side by side and it is important that this is done in a safe way. In order to enable the dexterous manipulation of fragile objects and to guarantee people’s safety, many next-generation robots are being built from flexible materials. Because they are soft, they cannot hurt people. But this, at the same time, means that these ‘soft robots’ are particularly vulnerable to damage caused by sharp objects, which are present all around us. The repairs needed to get these robots back to work often take time and are therefore very pricey.

A 3D-printed self-healing gripper holding a strawberry.
A 3D-printed self-healing gripper holding a strawberry. (Source: Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

To avoid this, scientists are developing technologies within the new Shero project that allow soft robots to self-heal damage. Because this repair process should not involve humans, researchers are looking into self-healing materials with which to build soft robots. These flexible plastics can completely heal themselves when they are damaged. Imbedded functional material helps to sense and actuate the self-healing process. The ambitious aim of this European project is to create a soft robot made from a self-healing material that can detect damage, take the necessary steps to (temporarily) heal the defect — provisionally for completing the work in progress, or more completely by way of a service operation.

Partners contribute their special know-how to the project

This prestigious project is headed by the University of Brussels (VUB) with a team of scientists from the Brubotics robotics research centre and the FYSC polymer research lab. Prof Vanderborght, who manages the project, explains: “We are obviously very pleased to be working on the next generation of robots. Over the past few years, we have already taken the first steps in creating self-healing materials for robots. With this research, we want above all to ensure that robots that are used in our working environment are safer, but also more sustainable. Thanks to the self-repair mechanism of this new kind of robot, complex and costly repairs may soon be a thing of the past.”

Thomas George Thuruthel, Research Associate in Soft Robotics Sensing and Self-Healing at the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, adds: “We will be using machine learning to work on the modelling and integration of these self-healing materials, to include self-healing actuators and sensors, damage detection, localisation and controlled healing.

“The end goal is to integrate the self-healing sensors and actuators into demonstration platforms in order to perform specific tasks.”

Empa will focus on new flexible sensors and actuators, which can be embedded into the self-healing polymers. “In a first step, we will embed our piezoresistive soft material sensor fibres in the self-healing polymer to consistently sense strain and to detect the region where a self-healing process has to be activated. In a later step, other kinds of sensors and actuators will be integrated, depending on the final application,” explains Frank Clemens, group leader at the Laboratory for High Performance Ceramics.

A robotic hand made from self-healing material.
A robotic hand made from self-healing material. (Source: Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Tonny Bosman, CEO of Suprapolix, continues: ”We feel privileged to be a partner in this consortium of Europe’s top research groups on soft robotics. We are convinced that our self-healing materials will take this field to the next level, thereby creating value for Suprapolix, robotics and the community at large.”

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