In general, living organisms can heal themselves when they suffer minor injuries, but machines can’t. They have to soldier on — if they can — until somebody comes along and repairs them. As we come to expect more human behavior from robots, however, we would like them to be able to mend themselves on their own. Researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) have been working on this problem and have come up with a possible solution.
They have developed soft robotic components that use air pressure to actuate the devices. These can be configured as a robotic hand or a gripper or even an artificial muscle. If the devices get punctured, they cannot maintain the air pressure, and can’t work. The researchers turned to special plastics that can self-heal. These rubber-like polymers can recover from punctures and cuts, initially rejoining the separated surfaces, and sealing to create an invisible repair within about 20 hours. The damage does not result in any weak spots after healing, and the devices functioned as well as they had before the damage.
While the focus is on robotics, this same technology could be applied to smart prosthetic hands and other adaptive devices. The result would be a more durable solution that could be used for everyday tasks without the need to be overly cautious about minor damage. They won’t even need a band-aid while they heal!