Made in our image? Robots that decompose are on the way

Recent report by Reuters puts a whole new perspective on the idea of designing for the end of ‘life’

No longer will robots end their serviceable life on a scrap heap: a team of researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology (ITT) Smart Materials platform are now developing bioplastic materials that could allow robots to decompose like a human body once their time has come.

‘These biodegradable materials, natural materials, they are very flexible so they can be used for robotic skins,’ explained Dr Athanassiou, who leads the Smart Materials Group at the IIT in Genoa.

‘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.’

The bioplastic developed by the team is derived from industrial food waste. In this way, the researchers are seeking to contribute to the valorization of the huge amounts of waste generated by the food processing industry. The bioplastics are being touted by the group as non-toxic and eco-friendly, as they use less energy and water resources to manufacture.

Another member of the team is Nikos Tsagarakis, lead researcher on the Walk-Man project, a humanoid robot designed to operate human tools and interact with its environment in the same way a person would. He pointed out the trouble with building robots from conventional metals and plastics, telling Reuters: ‘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.’

The scientists are using nanotechnology to generate materials with new properties, explained Athanassiou. The team is not only combining materials to make new ‘smart’ composites, the researchers are also using nanomaterials 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,” she said. “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.”

The first step will be robots with an outer ‘skin’ made from the new biodegradable plastic, said Athanassiou.

“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. “All the parts of the robot.”


Bioplastics MAGAZINE, 2016-01-26.


Italian Institute of Technology


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