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Self healing material for future self repairing robots

Like a living tissue, this material has self-healing properties. It repairs itself in real time from extreme mechanical damage, such as holes cut in it multiple times. New pathways are formed instantly and autonomously to keep this circuit functioning and the device moving. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have succeeded in creating a soft material that can self repair itself when punctured or damaged by stress.

Flexible electronics has been the goal of several research in the past and good results have been obtained to the point that we have now wearable electronics in shirts and shoes, resisting to deformation. Some circuits are leveraging deformation to generate power. Flexible electronics is having big time at FIFA 2018 Soccer World Cup: it is embedded in tickets, in beer (paper) glasses with LED that lights up and blink when there is loud noise (watch them light up as a team scores and its fans shout!) and even in the soccer ball!

One thing is to make electronics flexible so that it can be used in soft materials that bend, quite a different story is to make it resilient to damage, to have it repair itself in case of need.

That is what the soft material created at Carnegie Mellon University can do. It is manufactured with micro metallic liquid droplets embedded in an elastomer and in case of damage coalesce to create alternative patterns preserving the functionality.

The material cas sustain several punctures and still remain functional.

This result is interesting in the area of robots as they are evolving and acquiring a “soft skin”, making them more versatile, but at the same time less resistant to the environment. Hence the need to have a material, like our skin, that can self repair.

Autonomous systems will surely benefit from this kind of materials. Artificial intelligence creating the sense of “self” (a  big debate is still raging on what would be the meaning of “self” for a robot… but if we accept a functional definition of self, like being aware of one’s own boundaries and components, then most scientists would agree that robots are acquiring a sense of self) will endow robots with the urgency to fix themselves, repairing what has been damaged, self replacing parts. At the “skin” level the most effective solution is not to be able to replace the skin, rather to have skin with self healing capability and this is a first step in that direction.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.