From picking fruit to carrying out minor surgery, soft robotic hands made from jelly-like plastic are thought by scientists to be the future solution to many human needs.
But being gentle and soft enough to avoid damaging fruit or flesh has made the robots prone to damage and left them largely impractical for use in the real world – until now.
A European commission-funded project, led by scientists at the Free University of Brussels and the University of Cambridge, aims to create “self-healing” robots that can feel pain, or sense damage, before swiftly patching themselves up without human intervention.
The researchers have already successfully developed polymers that can heal themselves by creating new bonds after about 40 minutes.
The next step will be to embed sensor fibres in the polymer which can detect where the damage is located.
The end goal is to make the healing automated, avoiding the current need for heat to activate the system, through the touch of a human hand.
Prof Bram Vanderborght, from the Free University of Brussels, who is managing the project, said the research was at the forefront of developing a new generation of robotics.
He said: “Over the past few years, we have already taken the first steps in creating self-healing materials for robots.
“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. Due to the self-repair mechanism of this new kind of robots, complex, costly repairs may be a thing of the past.”
Soft robotic hands, made through 3D printing, are able to manipulate fragile objects with dexterity and are safer for humans to be around in environments such as factories and fields.
Grippers used for fruit and vegetable picking and placing are smooth to prevent bacteria and fungus growth.
But they are vulnerable to cracks and rips. The cost of robot replacement parts is said to be in excess of £320m a year.
The self-healing project is seeking to create what it describes as “anthropomorphic materials, capable of feeling pain”.
Developing soft robotic systems with autonomous self-healing polymers then excludes the need of additional heating devices and costs.
Depending on the extent and location of the damage, trials so far suggest the healing can take only second or up to a week in room temperature conditions.
Cambridge University is working alongside the Free University of Brussels and the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles, in Paris, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, and the Dutch polymer manufacturer SupraPolix.
The scientific advance could be a boon to the agricultural sector but governments across the world are now preparing for a robotic age in which low-skilled jobs are filled by automated replacements. A recent European commission report suggested 43% of jobs in the UK could be filled by robots in the future.