The field of robotics has come a long way in recent years. Scientists and engineers are able to do more with robots than ever before. Part of that has to do with the development of new technologies. Using nature as an inspiration has also yielded a number of advancements.
Researchers from the University of California San Diego have recently found the latter to be true. The team of engineers successfully developed a small swimming robot that has the ability to “heal” itself.
Though the research is still in its early stages, the team behind the self-repairing robot believes it could have a variety of real-world uses.
Robots are great for doing jobs that would put humans in danger. Since a robot isn’t living, it can always be replaced if it’s damaged. That being said, having to constantly repair and replace robots can be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor.
Teams in recent years have been working on ways to build robots that are able to repair themselves automatically if they are damaged.
The researchers from UC San Diego may have found the perfect way to do so—magnets. Each one of the swimming robots is about two centimeters long and consists of three fish-shaped layers. The first is conductive, the second is rigid and hydrophobic, and the third is made of aligned, magnetic nanoparticles.
Adding hydrogen peroxide to the robot’s platinum-containing tail produces bubbles that allow it to move.
The researchers proceeded to cut the robots into pieces. Since the tail still reacted with the hydrogen peroxide, it kept swimming around the petri dish until it eventually reconnected with the rest of its body. Once it gets close enough, the magnetic connection restores the robot to its original fish shape and it starts to swim like normal.
Interestingly, the approach even worked when the robot was cut into three distinct pieces. In a blog post, the researchers noted that this is an important step forward for the future of self-healing robotics.
The automatic repair process can be seen in the player below and is fascinating to watch.
While watching a tiny robot heal itself in a petri dish is cool, it certainly isn’t the end goal of this research. Swimming robots found several uses in the real-world, often allowing scientists to study aquatic areas they wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.
They are also useful for things like monitoring the environment for pollution and even cleaning up dangerous waste products.
As noted, however, needing to repair robots all the time gets expensive. Many companies shy away from the technology as a result. If a robot is able to repair itself after sustaining damage—such as with the UC San Diego team’s magnetic approach—it would be much more attractive.
Still, more research needs to occur before the method is ready for real-world applications. Most robots are far more complex than the fish-shaped one in the study and contain sensitive electronics and wiring. Finding a way to stitch all of that back together will be inherently more challenging.