Self-healing robots? Experts are developing machines that can detect and repair their damage

Key Points
  • Today, robots are being used to carry out delicate tasks, such as picking strawberries or apples, which have usually been the preserve of humans.
  • Researchers in Europe are working on a project to develop robots that can detect damage and then "heal" themselves. 
VUB | Brubotics

Researchers in Europe are working on a 3 million euro ($3.36 million) project to develop robots that can detect damage and then "heal," or repair, themselves in order to continue with tasks.

The self-healing soft robot (SHERO) project, which is funded by the EU, is led by a team at the Vrije University in Brussels (VUB), Belgium. The University of Cambridge, the ESPCI school in Paris, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology and the Dutch firm SupraPolix are also involved.

Today, robots are being used to carry out dexterous tasks, such as picking strawberries or apples, which are usually the preserve of humans.

According to VUB, "many" next generation robots are being built from materials that are soft and flexible, which makes them vulnerable to damage from sharp objects.

Researchers at VUB have been working on this problem for several years now. In August 2017, they announced that they had built soft robots from "rubbery polymers" that, when damaged, were able to recover their shape and heal if exposed to heat.

The SHERO project will look to develop robots made from flexible plastics that can repair themselves without needing help from humans. It's envisaged that materials which can help with sensing and then triggering the healing process will be embedded into the robots.

Thomas George Thuruthel, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Engineering, said machine learning would be used "to work on the modeling and integration of these self-healing materials, to include self-healing actuators and sensors, damage detection, localization and controlled healing."

The VUB's Bram Vanderborght is managing the SHERO project. "Over the past few years, we have already taken the first steps in creating self-healing materials for robots," he said in a statement Wednesday.

"With this research we want to continue and, above all, ensure that robots that are used in our working environment are safer, but also more sustainable," he added. "Due to the self-repair mechanism of this new kind of robots, complex, costly repairs may be a thing of the past."