Since fans first clapped eyes on the T-1000, the shape-shifting antagonist from 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, many people have been eagerly anticipating the day in which liquid metal robots became a reality. And by “eagerly anticipating,” we mean “had the creeping sense that such a thing is a Skynet eventuality, so we might as well make the best of it.”
Jump forward to the closing days of 2019 and, while robots haven’t quite advanced to the level of the 2029 future sequences seen in T2, scientists are getting closer. In Japan, roboticists from the University of Tokyo’s JSK Lab have created a prototype robot leg with a metal tendon “fuse” that’s able to repair fractures. How does it do this? Simple: By autonomously melting itself and then reforming as a single piece. The work was presented at the recent 2019 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS).
The self-healing module is comprised of two halves that are connected via magnets and springs. Each half of the module is filled with an alloy with a low melting point of just 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). When the fuse breaks, the cartridges heat, melting the alloy and allowing the two halves to fuse together again. While the re-fused joints are not as strong as they were before any break took place, the researchers have observed that gently vibrating the joint during melting and reforming results in a joint that is up to 90% of its original strength. This could be further optimized in the future.
It’s still very early in the development process. But the ultimate ambition is to develop ways that robots will be able to better heal themselves, rather than having to rely on external tools to do so. Since roboticists regularly borrow from nature for biomimetic solutions to problems, the idea of robots that can heal like biological creatures makes a lot of sense.
Just like breakthroughs in endeavors like artificial muscles and continued research toward creating superintelligence, it does take us one step closer to the world envisioned in Terminator. Where’s John “savior of all humanity” Connor when you need him?
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