To create smarter materials that will transform robotics, researchers must work together. That was the thinking behind the four year SMART project, which united fifteen early-stage researchers from robotics and materials science - and turned them into friends.

Shellfish and robots might sound like they have nothing in common, but according to PhD candidate Aleix Costa, roboticists can learn a lot from nature. His research aims to bring these two worlds together to help change the world.

New, smart and soft materials will be key for building the next generation of robots. These will be able to cooperate more closely with humans and could revolutionise everything from industry to healthcare. But before that can happen, researchers across different disciplines must learn to work together.

When the SMART project wound down at the end of September, a four years of interdisciplinary cooperation and networking came to an end. "The SMART project was a European Marie Curie innovative training network", explains Bram Vanderborght, professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) & imec and coordinator of the SMART project. "The idea was to train fifteen researchers. We had them do research together, and hosted training events on topics from pitching to patents. We wanted them to do excellent research, but also to apply their findings beyond the confines of academia. They will be able to use the skills they learned here throughout their careers."

By bringing together researchers from robotics and material science, the project bridged the gap between the two fields - the key for the further advancement of robotics according to Vanderborght. "Today’s robots are generally made from harder materials, such as plastics or metals", he says. "It's a challenge for them to interact with certain objects or environments. A metal robotic hand will, for example, very easily destroy a piece of fruit when it tries to grab it. To solve that, we started looking at the human body. This is made from soft tissues, which have unique properties such as feeling, moving and the ability to heal. So we're trying to build robots out of soft materials that have similar properties."

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As these new, soft materials will become the basis of the field of robotics in the future, it’s crucial for roboticists and material scientists to have these interactions now. "It's very interesting to have interdisciplinary exchanges", says Vanderborght. "We started with online social events during COVID-19, which was challenging because we wanted to build a network. Since then it has been important to have in-person events, where all the expertise is united in one place. You see all these technologies come together and work towards a shared vision."

Making magic

One of these researchers was Maria Pozo Esquiva from the Dutch company Suprapolix, a Spanish Marie Skłodowska-Curie Early Stage Researcher at the VUB. Her background is in chemistry, and she develops so-called ‘self-healing’ materials. These are polymers that, when damaged, repair themselves. "When I show my research to my friends, they say 'that's magic'", she laughs. "I guess chemistry is sometimes a bit of magic!"

"I use insights from both the VUB and SupraPolix in my research", she says. "I'm developing a second-generation material where we have faster healing at room temperature, with stronger properties than before."

Pozo Esquiva notes that VUB has developed tough materials, with lower self-healing capabilities. SupraPolix in turn has researched softer materials, with faster self-healing properties. The job of the young researcher was to bring the best of both worlds together. The result is a polymer, that's in the middle between hardness and softness, and which can heal itself within 5 to 10 seconds.

Such a material might have applications in robotics, but also far beyond. "If we can introduce these self-healing properties into products we use every day that could mean we need to throw less of them away", the researcher says. "That in turn means less waste for the environment. Polymers are a large source of environmental contamination. Reducing that amount of waste would be great."

Allowing researchers to do secondments at companies was a key pillar of the SMART project. Again the idea was to break through the walls of academia and allow researchers to apply their knowledge in a commercial setting.

"I like chemistry, but I also like to produce something concrete", says Pozo Esquiva. "In material science you can touch what you make. Self-healing materials might sound futuristic, but we have the tools to achieve it. It's the reality in which we already live."

Aleix Costa, a PhD candidate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) & imec takes his inspiration from nature. "Mother nature has already figured out many of the problems we face in robotics", he says. "Take for example the issue of soft robotics. Most robots in factories are rigid, and not safe to interact with. If we want to introduce them into our homes and daily lives, they will need to be soft. But at the same time they will also need to be able to resist damage."

According to Costa, the solution to this problem might be in animals that combine soft and hard tissues, such as shellfish that carry a seashell for protection. So he looks at the morphology of animals to inspire robotic designs.

Healing powers

Seyedreza Kashef Tabrizian is an Iranian robotics expert and PhD candidate at the VUB & imec that is taking the self-healing materials developed by researchers such as Pozo Esquiva and applying them in the design of new robots.

The researcher is trying to create a system where possible damage in a soft robot can be easily localised and healed. "The human body has a nervous system that can detect damage”, says Kashef Tabrizian. “Robots also need this ability. They need to sense damage, localise it and see how severe it is. They need to do damage detection, clean the puncture and then close the damage up. All of this, we should do autonomously, without human intervention."

These self-healing abilities are particularly useful for soft robots, since they are more vulnerable to cuts and punctures. Kashef Tabrizian works with heat to heal this kind of damage, and he integrated the heater into the robot design. In this way the robot can autonomously heal itself and doesn’t need human intervention when it’s damaged.

"When you need external help it increases the cost", says Kashef Tabrizian. "You need people to monitor and fix the robot. When the robot is self-sufficient it works better. Then there are robots working in environments where there's limited human access. Take for example space exploration. If a robot is damaged on a remote location, and cannot heal itself, that's a big problem."

During the SMART project Kashef Tabrizian did a secondment at the German robotics company Festo. There he tried out his designs in an industrial context. “It was a great pleasure to work with Kashef Tabrizian”, says Daniel Brauchle of Festo. “During his three months here he developed three prototypes. We’re already in touch with several of our business units to see what can come out of these designs.”

In turn the researcher also learned new skills and saw first hand how academic technology can be applied in an industrial context. "In research we don't always care as much about having too much complexity", says Kashef Tabrizian. "We make our systems more complex, while industry likes to have things simple. There's a gap, and we need to bridge it."

Forming friendships

Early stage researchers from seven universities and research centres took part in the SMART project and the experience was very positive. "I learned a lot", says Pozo Esquiva. "I have improved my lab skills and learned new synthesis routes. But of course the soft skills were also important. We learned how to present our research and communicate it with others. I got to meet so many incredible PhD students and visit two research universities."

"The project was challenging in the beginning because of COVID-19", says Vanderborght. "But since then the researchers have learned a lot from and about each other. They have become friends that take part in social activities together. It's a joy to see all these people from so many parts of the world become friends."

Now the project has wrapped up, Vanderborght looks back fondly on the things he learned from it. "After this the researchers will either go in the direction of academia, or an industrial career", he says. "That's why we gave them these skills. They allow the researchers to walk these two roads. It was unique to be able to coordinate a project like this and learn about all these new technologies. I'm a mechanical engineer, but I learned about so many new disciplines. In this project there was one constant: we had to leave our comfort zones."

APPENDIX: SMART projects conducted at VUB

Appendix.pdf 73 KB


Koen Stein
Koen Stein Perscontact wetenschap & innovatie


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