C3PO and R2D2 notwithstanding, not all robots are hard. We’ve written about soft robots before, usually in devices that physically contact humans or when the robots function as muscle replacements. For example, in 2019, we wrote about work at Purdue on 3D printing soft robots used for external surfaces of mechanical and electronic gripping devices that assist elderly persons. We also wrote last year about Scientists at Linköping University who developed artificial muscles powered by glucose and oxygen.

Researchers at Penn State recently developed a robotic soft muscle using a biosynthetic polymer — modeled on squid ring teeth — that is both self-healing and biodegradable. According to Penn State scientists, the muscles built of the polymer can function as device actuators as well as the surface of applications such as hazmat suits where small holes can pose a significant threat. The Penn State engineers work published their work on July 27 in Nature Materials. Penn State professor of engineering science and mechanic Melik Demirel explained that the project goal was to use synthetic biology to create programmable self-healing materials. According to Demirel, soft materials currently used for joints in industrial robotics wear out and break after gradually developing tiny holes, cracks, and defects. The Penn State material would self-repair such defects and damage as they occur, to prevent major robot failures.

Using a technique called DNA tandem repeats — aka “gene duplication” — the Penn State technology heals protein-based soft robotic materials within one second. The process begins with water and heat and performs the repair with amino acids by the DNA repeats. In a Penn State news release, Demirel also said the polymer regains 100% of its original strength when it heals, even when cut in half. The material has potential applications in self-repairing robot and actuators, Penn State reports.

The concept of robotic material that can function and repair itself in isolation suggests many applications, particularly at a time when minimizing human contact and remote work is a priority.