Scientists 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. Matthew Stock reports.
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 plastics - materials that are hard to dispose of. Scientists at the Italian Insitute of Technology are working to make robots far more eco-friendly. At the 'Smart Materials' lab, they've created bioplastic from food waste. SOUNDBITE (English) ATHANASSIA ATHANASSIOU, HEAD OF THE SMART MATERIALS GROUP AT THE ITALIAN INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, SAYING: "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." This is Walk-Man - a humanoid robot designed to operate human tools. His developer says using alternative materials could eventually make Walk-Man more life-like. SOUNDBITE (English) NIKOS TSAGARAKIS, IIT SENIOR RESEARCHER - WALK-MAN PROJECT COORDINATOR AND SCIENTIFIC COORDINATOR, SAYING: "But 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 maker lighter robots, more efficient and, finally, also recyclable." Biodegradable human-like skin is just the first step, the team says. SOUNDBITE (English) ATHANASSIA ATHANASSIOU, HEAD OF THE SMART MATERIALS GROUP AT THE ITALIAN INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, SAYING: "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." 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. The research here could eventually lead to a robot body that will completely decompose just as if it was flesh and blood.