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biodegradable robots

Have you wondered what the human-looking robotic bodies have underneath their coarse looking skin? Well! Even when robots are getting more life-like, their insides are mostly plastic or metallic substances. These materials are hard to dispose of especially after their span. This is because these materials are toxic, non-biodegradable and expensive. Scientists in Italy are researching on developing biodegradable bodies for robots!

Their goal is to create smart materials that decay just like human skin. So that at the end of a robot’s ‘life’, it could be buried. Thus it can be ensured that there is no environmental threat.

Zero environmental impact with decommissioned robots

When industrial robots stop working, they are replaced with newer versions. This is called ‘decommissioning’. Here comes the need for disposing of them. Most of these robots are made from plastic. The more dangerous impact is that within these robots are many electronic sensors, motion detectors, batteries, motors and other harmful robotic parts that pose danger, especially the robots that are constructed as a single operational unit. Disposing of these harmful decommissioned robots are thus a threat to the environment!

Developing robots that can rot!

The research team at ITT (Italian Institute of Technology) in Genoa uses a ‘mix and match’ approach for developing the ‘smart materials’ required to build biodegradable robots. This is done by combining various nanomaterials to generate products with new properties. Other existing materials are cotton or paper or different foams from synthetic foams like polyurethane or forms of cotton.

Dr Athanassia Athanassiou’s team at ITT has developed bioplastics manufactured from vegetables. Additionally, what makes the material unique is that unlike normal plastic materials that are made from petroleum products, these are made from industrial food waste. The bioplastic materials are hence claimed non-toxic. These are thus safe for the environment since they use up less energy and water resources for their manufacture.

‘These natural biodegradable materials are also very flexible and so are used for robotic skins’ explains DR Athanassiou. And as for the internal parts of a robot, these materials can be made hard. Sensors can also be incorporated into the flexible robotic skin.

The advantage is that the robots made with these biodegradable smart materials instead of the electronic components incorporated in them, the robots would be more efficient. They would then be recyclable!

Development of Natural Smart Materials for Robots

A joint research project at the Kanagawa University “Robot Development Project With Human and Eco-friendly Smart Materials” that started in April 2012 and ended in March 2014 was implemented to develop life support robots and develop the corresponding robotic technology. The terms in the project title reveal the project objective:

  •  ”Human-friendly” means safe.
  •  ”Eco-friendly” means ecologically sound, recyclable, natural materials.
  •  ”Smart” means a friendly appearance in addition to high performance.

They made use of cellulose nanofibers which are an environment-friendly material made of wood pulp. Green composites consisting of cellulose nanofibre, natural fibre and biodegradable resin for robotic parts were fabricated and their flexural properties were examined.

The ECOBOT Evolution – towards biodegradable robotic organisms

Dr Jonathan Rossiter, Senior Lecturer in the University of Bristol’s Department and a member of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) has bagged a 2-year Research Project Grant for his project: ‘A robot that decomposes: towards biodegradable robotic organisms’. Conventional robots are built from rigid resilient materials that are both toxic and have a negative impact on the natural ecology. Hence there is a requirement for making the environment safe by deploying robots that are safe and biodegradable, once it has reached its usable life.

Dr Rossiter along with his co-investigator, Dr Loannis Leropoulos, Senior Research Fellow in the BRL aims to illustrate that the autonomous soft robotic artificial organisms can exhibit an important characteristic of biological organisms, it being the decomposition after its use, so that it will decompose into harmless material.

Biodegradability will hence enhance the qualities of the Ecobot robot. The Ecobot robot is an autonomous robot that gets its energy from the consumption of biomass from the environment. The only bi-product from this process is carbon dioxide, which is otherwise also produced from the natural biodegradation of the fuel.

Ecobot-1 was developed in 2002 at BRL. Ecobot-1 is a robot that was built to perform photoaxis (that is, the movement towards the light). They did not employ any other forms of conventional power supply nor did it require any other forms of initial charging from any external sources.

Ecobot-2 was deployed in 2004 at BRL and was the first robot in the world to perform sensing, information processing and communication, along with photoaxis. It is biodegradable as it consumed dead flies, rotten fruits and crustacean shells as the fuel and oxygen from free air as the cathode. Ecobot-2 was the first practical robotic example of a symbiotic robot, also known as a Symbot.

Ecobot-3 was developed in 2010. It was the world’s first robot to exhibit true self-sustainability in primitive form. It used the micro-organisms to supply energy (produced as part of the natural and normal mico-organic activities) to the robot to perform its actions.

Robots that ensure safety and an unharmed environment

There is certainly more work to be done when biodegradable robots start helping to protect the environment.  These robots could be sent to remote or sensitive areas to collect data, even tapping into natural resources to obtain energy for instance, like muddy puddles, sediments or pests like flies or mosquitos.

As long as this fuel is continuously supplied, these robots will keep working. A built-in mechanism has to be devised to then initiate biodegradation of the robot once it has completed its task.

Yet another role where these robots can be deployed are in areas where human-made waste has accrued such as oil spills or nuclear waste. Reports illustrate that bacteria can eat up crude oil in spills and even nuclear waste. The robots can be sent to infected areas that are loaded with these bacteria and can clean the contaminated area. After the robot has performed its mission, the robot can be left to degrade harmlessly in the environment!

Not only does biodegradable robots ensure the safety of the environment but also can be deployed as friendly companions for providing assistance to the elderly and also to children!

Nadine- The Robotic Receptionist

Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore recently road-tested their robot receptionist, Nadine. Nadine was built with the aim to be used as a personal assistant in the workplace. Nadine is capable of communicating with people and even can recollect their previous conversations. Nadine is the creation of Professor Nadia Thalmann, Director of the Institute for Media Innovation at NTU.

The Professor says that this humanoid expresses her feelings and emotions like a human does. This technology of social robots could be commercialized for use as Personal Assistants in the workplace and even as companions for the older people who need personal assistance like for children and the elderly at home. “Nadia will also serve as a platform for healthcare services in future” explains Professor Nadia.

Robotics can thus be made use of to create and deploy biodegradable, smart eco-friendly robots that can make the world a better place to live in!


Akhil A

COO | Robot-assisted test automation on real HMI Devices | IVI | Smart Device | Touchscreens | Keypad | Avionics panel |Mobile

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