New self-healing technology makes robots more human-like

The researchers created a special polymer that can make robots repair themselves.

  • Scientists are creating robots that can heal themselves
  • Ability to heal is important for soft robots
  • Soft robots can perform delicate operations but can damage easily

One of the great things about being human is our ability to heal after injuries. If we couldn't regrow skin or mend broken bones, we wouldn't last too long in a world full of hazards. Now researchers are developing self-healing abilities for robots, looking to make them not only last longer but also to be more adaptable to a multitude of applications. The research can also lead to better prosthetics for humans.

You've probably come across Baymax, the robot in Disney's "Big Hero 6". The cuddly inflatable robot's softness is not just a writer's whimsy but is taken from research currently being conducted. The flexibility of soft robots makes them ideal for uses that require picking up delicate objects like a fruit or performing invasive surgery. The softness also makes it less likely that a robot would injure humans who may be working alongside it.

But similar to the humans, the soft robots are more prone to damage whether from sharp objects or too much pressure. To counteract such threats, researchers from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) in Belgium have developed a technology that helps their soft robots completely heal from injuries. The pneumatic robots created by VUB, which included a gripper, a robotic hand and an artificial muscle, were made from rubbery polymers with healing properties. When damage occurs, such jelly-like polymers are able to assume their original shape and fully heal.

Credit: Disney

Baymax from "Big Hero 6"

To test the robotic elements, the team, led by Professor Bram Vanderborght from VUB, damaged them in a controlled environment. They found that after applying heat, the tears went away without any "weak spots," according to Vanderborght.

"The polymer has lots of different strands that lock together to form the material. When you add heat, they reorganise to stick back together without leaving any weak spots," said Bram Vanderborght.

The professor is optimistic that research like theirs will lead to transformative changes in the robots of the future, adding that "robots can not only be made lighter and safer, they will also be able to work longer independently without requiring constant repairs."

Here is the team's 2017 paper on "Self-healing soft pneumatic robots," published in ScienceRobotics.

Also check out this video demonstrating the self-healing properties of VUB's soft robots:

And if you want to dive in more into the science behind the work, here's a helpful video from Seppe Terryn, the key researcher behind the technology:


Stress is contagious–but resilience can be too

The way that you think about stress can actually transform the effect that it has on you – and others.

Big Think Edge
  • Stress is contagious, and the higher up in an organization you are the more your stress will be noticed and felt by others.
  • Kelly McGonigal teaches "Reset your mindset to reduce stress" for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

5 short podcasts to boost your creativity and success

These quick bursts of inspiration will brighten your day in 10 minutes or less.

Personal Growth

Podcasts can educate us on a variety of topics, but they don't have to last an hour or more to have an impact on the way you perceive the world. Here are five podcasts that will boost your creativity and well-being in 10 minutes or less.

Keep reading Show less

Philosopher Alan Watts: 'Why modern education is a hoax'

Explore a legendary philosopher's take on how society fails to prepare us for education and progress.

Alan Watts.
Personal Growth
  • Alan Watts was an instrumental figure in the 1960s counterculture revolution.
  • He believed that we put too much of a focus on intangible goals for our educational and professional careers.
  • Watts believed that the whole educational enterprise is a farce compared to how we should be truly living our lives.
Keep reading Show less

Mining the Moon

How can we use the resources that are already on the Moon to make human exploration of the satellite as economical as possible?

The All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE), a prototype heavy-lift utility vehicle to support future human exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces, at right, is parked beside the Habitat Demonstration Unit - Pressurized Excursion Module (HDU-PEM), at left, a concept off-Earth living and work quarters for astronauts stationed on asteroids, the moon or Mars, 15 September 2010. Photo by: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

If you were transported to the Moon this very instant, you would surely and rapidly die. That's because there's no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone-chilling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or horrific heat or cold don't kill you then micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. By all accounts, the Moon is not a hospitable place to be.

Keep reading Show less