Credit: Terryn et al., Sci. Robot. (2017)
Scientists in Brussels have engineered soft robots that can use heat to heal their own wounds, barely leaving "scars." The key is rubbery material called elastomers that can change shape when exposed to mild heat.
Why it matters: "The lifespan of the robot is increased," Bram Vanderborght, one of the researchers, told Axios. Soft robots are unique in their adaptability — they're malleable and can navigate unknown environments. Most recently, Stanford researchers developed a vine-like soft robot that can "grow" like a plant and could potentially guide a patient's catheter in the future. These new self-healing properties could make robots resilient in potentially destructive environments.
How it works:
- When exposed to temperatures around 80 degrees Celsius for 20 to 40 minutes, the elastomers loosen enough that they can move to fill the gaps created by cuts.
- After they cool down to about 25 degrees Celsius, the robots are as good as new.
- This healing process can be repeated indefinitely. But, it's not just melting and re-forming the robots, Vanderborght says. The heat changes the elastomer so it can move, but melting the material would destroy it, he says.
The goal, according to Vanderborght, is to create robots that are able to sense when they are hurt. For example, a robot might detect increased exposure to air through the gap created by a cut. This sensory ability combined with engineering that allows scientists to place self-activating heat sources within the robots could be used to build soft robots that can detect their injuries and start the healing cycle by themselves.