A team from Vrije Universiteit Brussel have created a special "skin" that can be used by robots to heal themselves, allowing them to work more independently "without requiring constant repairs".
Professor Bram Vanderborght, of BruBotics VUB and Flanders Make, said: "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."
A jelly-like polymer is used to create this "skin" and the robots tested could be healed using the polymer and won't leave any weak spots.
Writing in the Science Robotics journal, they added: "Inspired by the compliance found in many organisms, soft robots are made almost entirely out of flexible, soft material, making them suitable for applications in uncertain, dynamic task environments, including safe human-robot interactions. Their intrinsic compliance absorbs shocks and protects them against mechanical impacts. However, the soft materials used for their construction are highly susceptible to damage, such as cuts and perforations caused by sharp objects present in the uncontrolled and unpredictable environments they operate in.
"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. Diels-Alder polymers, being thermoreversible covalent networks, were used to develop three applications of self-healing soft pneumatic actuators (a soft gripper, a soft hand, and artificial muscles).
"Soft pneumatic actuators commonly experience perforations and leaks due to excessive pressures or wear during operation. All three prototypes were designed using finite element modeling and mechanically characterized. The manufacturing method of the actuators exploits the self-healing behavior of the materials, which can be recycled. Realistic macroscopic damage could be healed entirely using a mild heat treatment. At the location of the scar, no weak spots were created, and the full performance of the actuators was nearly completely recovered after healing."