Eczema? No, Terminator Skin

January 20, 2023

Once again, yesterday’s science fiction is today’s science fact. ScienceDaily reports, “Soft Robot Detects Damage, Heals Itself.” Led by Rob Shepherd, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Cornell University’s Organic Robotics Lab has developed stretchable fiber-optic sensors. These sensors could be incorporated in soft robots, wearable tech, and other components. We learn:

“For self-healing to work, Shepard says the key first step is that the robot must be able to identify that there is, in fact, something that needs to be fixed. To do this, researchers have pioneered a technique using fiber-optic sensors coupled with LED lights capable of detecting minute changes on the surface of the robot. These sensors are combined with a polyurethane urea elastomer that incorporates hydrogen bonds, for rapid healing, and disulfide exchanges, for strength. The resulting SHeaLDS — self-healing light guides for dynamic sensing — provides a damage-resistant soft robot that can self-heal from cuts at room temperature without any external intervention. To demonstrate the technology, the researchers installed the SHeaLDS in a soft robot resembling a four-legged starfish and equipped it with feedback control. Researchers then punctured one of its legs six times, after which the robot was then able to detect the damage and self-heal each cut in about a minute. The robot could also autonomously adapt its gait based on the damage it sensed.”

Some of us must remind ourselves these robots cannot experience pain when we read such brutal-sounding descriptions. As if to make that even more difficult, we learn this material is similar to human flesh: it can easily heal from cuts but has more trouble repairing burn or acid damage. The write-up describes the researchers’ next steps:

“Shepherd plans to integrate SHeaLDS with machine learning algorithms capable of recognizing tactile events to eventually create ‘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.'”

Yep, sci-fi made manifest. Stay tuned.

Cynthia Murrell, January 20, 2023


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