Researchers from the EU-funded SHERO (Self-Healing Soft Robotics) project are developing soft self-healing materials for robots that autonomously repair themselves without human influence. The ultimate goal of the project is to create complete robotic systems that are capable of feeling pain (at the microscopic and macroscopic levels), react accordingly to relieve said pain, take action to heal the damage, restore all functions, undergo rehabilitation, and finally return to work — a lofty goal by any standards, but a worthy one.
Most soft materials — rubber, silicone, and plastics — can be repaired using any number of methods (glue, heat, tape, etc.), but it takes human intervention to identify the problem then fix them, which takes time and money. SHERO’s materials will shift those actions over to the robots, where they can identify the issue and heal themselves. According to SHERO, “These soft robotic systems will be able to sense and evaluate the loss of performance and heal damage due to fatigue, overloading, and injuries by sharp objects present in dynamic environments or by human contact.”
The researchers are developing two different types of self-healing materials, with the first healing itself when heat is applied either internally, or externally. This means that when a robot becomes damaged, it can use onboard heat for repairs, or head to some heating station after identifying the damaged area.
The second type of material is autonomous, meaning it can heal at room temperature without any internal/external intervention; however, this type is best suited for minor injuries and scrapes. There is a drawback with using this material, as it takes time to self-heal. According to the researchers, the healing efficiency after three, seven, and fourteen days is 62%, 91%, and 97% respectively. Both of the materials can be combined, customizing their properties for different applications. The researchers also plan on introducing sensors to the materials that will help robots sense the amount of damage it’s received, as well as providing position feedback for control systems.