If there’s one thing we know about robots, it’s that they break. They break, like, literally all the time. The software breaks. The hardware breaks. The bits that you think could never, ever, ever possibly break end up breaking just when you need them not to break the most, and then you have to try to explain what happened to your advisor who’s been standing there watching your robot fail and then stay up all night fixing the thing that seriously was not supposed to break.
While most of this is just a fundamental characteristic of robots that can’t be helped, the European Commission is funding a project called SHERO (Self HEaling soft RObotics) to try and solve at least some of those physical robot breaking problems through the use of structural materials that can autonomously heal themselves over and over again.
SHERO is a three year, €3 million collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris), and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). As the name SHERO suggests, the goal of the project is to develop soft materials that can completely recover from the kinds of damage that robots are likely to suffer in day to day operations, as well as the occasional more extreme accident.
Most materials, especially soft materials, are fixable somehow, whether it’s with super glue or duct tape. But fixing things involves a human first identifying when they’re broken, and then performing a potentially skill, labor, time, and money intensive task. SHERO’s soft materials will, eventually, make this entire process autonomous, allowing robots to self-identify damage and initiate healing on their own.
The damaged robot finger (top) can operate normally after healing itself.Photos: SHERO Project
How the self-healing material works
What these self-healing materials can do is really pretty amazing. The researchers are actually developing two different types—the first one heals itself when there’s an application of heat, either internally or externally, which gives some control over when and how the healing process starts. For example, if the robot is handling stuff that’s dirty, you’d want to get it cleaned up before healing it so that dirt doesn’t become embedded in the material. This could mean that the robot either takes itself to a heating station, or it could activate some kind of embedded heating mechanism to be more self-sufficient.
The second kind of self-healing material is autonomous, in that it will heal itself at room temperature without any additional input, and is probably more suitable for relatively minor scrapes and cracks. Here are some numbers about how well the healing works:
Autonomous self-healing polymers do not require heat. They can heal damage at room temperature. Developing soft robotic systems from autonomous self-healing polymers excludes the need of additional heating devices… The healing however takes some time. The healing efficiency after 3 days, 7 days and 14 days is respectively 62 percent, 91 percent and 97 percent.
This material was used to develop a healable soft pneumatic hand. Relevant large cuts can be healed entirely without the need of external heat stimulus. Depending on the size of the damage and even more on the location of damage, the healing takes only seconds or up to a week. Damage on locations on the actuator that are subjected to very small stresses during actuation was healed instantaneously. Larger damages, like cutting the actuator completely in half, took 7 days to heal. But even this severe damage could be healed completely without the need of any external stimulus.
Applications of self-healing robots
Both of these materials can be mixed together, and their mechanical properties can be customized so that the structure that they’re a part of can be tuned to move in different ways. The researchers also plan on introducing flexible conductive sensors into the material, which will help sense damage as well as providing position feedback for control systems. A lot of development will happen over the next few years, and for more details, we spoke with Bram Vanderborght at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.
IEEE Spectrum: How easy or difficult or expensive is it to produce these materials? Will they add significant cost to robotic grippers?
Bram Vanderborght: They are definitely more expensive materials, but it’s also a matter of size of production. At the moment, we’ve made a few kilograms of the material (enough to make several demonstrators), and the price already dropped significantly from when we ordered 100 grams of the material in the first phase of the project. So probably the cost of the gripper will be higher [than a regular gripper], but you won’t need to replace the gripper as often as other grippers that need to be replaced due to wear, so it can be an advantage.
Moreover due to the method of 3D printing the material, the surface is smoother and airtight (so no post-processing is required to make it airtight). Also, the smooth surface is better to avoid contamination for food handling, for example.
In commercial or industrial applications, gradual fatigue seems to be a more common issue than more abrupt trauma like cuts. How well does the self-healing work to improve durability over long periods of time?
We did not test for gradual fatigue over very long times. But both macroscopic and microscopic damage can be healed. So hopefully it can provide an answer here as well.
After developing a self-healing robot gripper, the researchers plan to use similar materials to build parts that can be used as the skeleton of robots, allowing them to repair themselves on a regular basis.Image: SHERO Project
How much does the self-healing capability restrict the material properties? What are the limits for softness or hardness or smoothness or other characteristics of the material?
Typically the mechanical properties of networked polymers are much better than thermoplastics. Our material is a networked polymer but in which the crosslinks are reversible. We can change quite a lot of parameters in the design of the materials. So we can develop very stiff (fracture strain at 1.24 percent) and very elastic materials (fracture strain at 450 percent). The big advantage that our material has is we can mix it to have intermediate properties. Moreover, at the interface of the materials with different mechanical properties, we have the same chemical bonds, so the interface is perfect. While other materials, they may need to glue it, which gives local stresses and a weak spot.
When the material heals itself, is it less structurally sound in that spot? Can it heal damage that happens to the same spot over and over again?
In theory we can heal it an infinite amount of times. When the wound is not perfectly aligned, of course in that spot it will become weaker. Also too high temperatures lead to irreversible bonds, and impurities lead to weak spots.
Besides grippers and skins, what other potential robotics applications would this technology be useful for?
Most of self healing materials available now are used for coatings. What we are developing are structural components, therefore the mechanical properties of the material need to be good for such applications. So maybe part of the skeleton of the robot can be developed with such materials to make it lighter, since can be designed for regular repair. And for exceptional loads, it breaks and can be repaired like our human body.
[ SHERO Project ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.