A robot can self-heal in about a minute after detecting damage

The soft robot can be used to explore places that could potentially be too dangerous for humans.
Brittney Grimes
SHeaLDS in a soft robot that was able to detect damage from a puncture and heal itself.
SHeaLDS in a soft robot that was able to detect damage from a puncture and heal itself.

Rebecca Bowyer/Cornell Engineering at Cornell University 

Soft robots have the ability to change their structure, but can also be prone to damage quite easily, due to the material they are made with. Engineers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, created a soft robot that has the ability to heal itself after detecting damage or injury.

The team, led by Rob Shepherd, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in Cornell Engineering at Cornell University, wanted to create a robot that could detect damage using optical sensors and a composite material. They combined the sensors and materials to develop the soft self-healing robot.

The study was published yesterday, Dec. 7, in the journal Science Advances.

The robot can identify the damage, and heal from it

Researchers created the soft robot so that it would be able to operate longer, even if damaged. “Our lab is always trying to make robots more enduring and agile, so they operate longer with more capabilities,” Shepherd said. “The thing is, if you make robots operate for a long time, they’re going to accumulate damage. And so how can we allow them to repair or deal with that damage?”

Shepherd and his team noted that the robot must first acknowledge that there is damage, to know that it needs repairing. He used stretchable fiber optic sensors from his Organic Robotics Lab to make the soft robots and other necessary parts. The sensors have been used in a variety of ways, including the design of stretchable ‘skin’.

LED lights are sent through an optical waveguide, a structure for guiding light. Then, a photodiode — a semiconductor that allows for flow of current — detects changes in the beam’s intensity to determine when the material is being deformed, or damaged. The waveguides can still transmit light even if they are pierced or cut.

A robot can self-heal in about a minute after detecting damage
An image of a photodiode on the left.

The research team combined the sensors with a polyurethane urea elastomer, a flexible material that combined hydrogen bonds for fast healing, and disulfide exchanges for strength. The incorporation of the materials together resulted in SHeaLDS – self-healing light guides for dynamic sensing.

Demonstrating SHeaLDS

SHeaLDS is damage-resistant and can self-heal from cuts without external intervention. The researchers installed SHeaLDS in a soft robot to demonstrate how it works. The robot resembled a four-legged starfish and also had feedback control installed.

Researchers punctured one of the robot’s legs six times and it was able to detect the damage and self-heal each time. It only took about a minute for the robot to heal itself. It could also adapt its gait automatically after the damage was sensed, allowing for a sturdy robot that could mend itself.

A robot can self-heal in about a minute after detecting damage
An illustration from the study demonstrating how SHeaLDS works on the robot.

The future use of soft robots incorporated with AI

Although the robot is durable, it is not completely unbreakable. “They have similar properties to human flesh,” Shepherd said. “You don’t heal well from burning, or from things with acid or heat, because that will change the chemical properties. But we can do a good job of healing from cuts.”

Shephard and his research team want to integrate SHeaLDS with machine learning algorithms that recognize concrete experiences, such as the robot healing from damage. They hope that the future robot will have the self-healing abilities but could also perform more duties. Eventually, they will develop “a very enduring robot that has a self-healing skin, but uses the same skin to feel its environment to be able to do more tasks.”


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