By Matthew Stock
Scientists from the Italian Institute of Technology are developing 'smart materials' that could lead to robots that will decompose like a human body once they've reached the end of their life-span.
STORY: Robots are getting ever more life-like, but underneath their synthetic skin it's a different story. Their insides are still made mostly from metal and plastic - materials that are hard to dispose of. But researchers in Italy are developing 'smart materials' that could allow robots to be built from substances that will biodegrade when they've reached the end of their life-span.
By merging separate distinct materials at the nano level the scientists are creating new and novel materials that preserve the properties of the individual components, but exhibit characteristics that would not be possible individually.
"We are infusing any material with nano technology. So what we are doing apart from making these new composite materials - smart materials - we're also using them to change the properties of other materials, other existing materials like paper or cotton or different foams; from synthetic foams like polyurethane or forms of cotton. So like this, in all these existing materials we are giving new properties that these materials don't have so we can open up their application range," explained Athanassia Athanassiou, who leads the Smart Materials Group at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa.
The researchers say their 'smart materials' could eventually replace conventional plastic which is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel, and contributes to climate change. Bioplastics are made from plant material, but are more energy-intensive to produce. Athanassiou's team have developed a way to create bioplastic from food waste, and so hope to mitigate the additional energy required by using resources that would normally go to waste.
In particular, robotics could be an important application for their research, according to Athanassiou.
"These biodegradable materials, natural materials, they are very flexible so they can be used for robotic skins. But they can be also very hard so they can be used for internal parts of a robot. And also, in this flexible skin - robotic skin let's say - we can incorporate sensors so they have this tactile sensing that the robots need, but with biodegradable materials," Athanassiou told Reuters.
Nikos Tsagarakis, lead researcher on a humanoid robot project at the IIT, said that roboticists will have to move on from metal in order to build the next generation of robot.
"The main issue is it's actually difficult to see how you can achieve the properties that you want to have; say matching more the properties of the human body. So going to alternative materials would be this advantage - it will help us to make lighter robots, more efficient and, finally, also recyclable," said Tsagarakis, who is developing the Walk-Man humanoid robot to operate human tools and interact with its environment in the same way a person would.
Robots made from biodegradable material would certainly make them more human-like, and perhaps more easily accepted in the real-world. And if robots are to ever be truly ubiquitous, they also need to be easily disposed of once they reach the end of their useful life-span.
While Athanassiou believes biodegradable materials are imminent for the skin-like outer layer, she believes eventually the entire robot body could decompose just as if it was flesh and blood.
"I believe that the starting point would be to make part of the robot, like the outer part of the robot for example, with this biodegradable material. But, in a few year's time, I find it very feasible that all the robot can be biodegradable," she said.