Sustainable green robots capable of decomposing at the end of their life: the vision in Pisa

Sustainable green robots capable of decomposing at the end of their life: the vision in Pisa

What will the robots be like? And what characteristics do they need to have to meet the challenges of technological innovation, improve social welfare and respect the environment? The answer comes in the article “A vision for future bioinspired and biohybrid robots” published in the international magazine Science Robotics and signed by Barbara Mazzolai, director of the Micro-Biorobotics Centre of the Italian Institute of Technology, and Cecilia Laschi, professor at the Institute of BioRobotics of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. The robotics of the future will have to be bio-inspired and sustainable, with green robots built with recyclable and biodegradable material, able to feed on renewable energy sources and which, once their operating cycle is over, can decompose without negatively affecting the environment. The breakthrough, in line with the objectives set by the United Nations in Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, will lead to a drastic rethinking of robots, starting from the components and interaction with human beings and the environment. The starting point of the thesis proposed by Barbara Mazzolai and Cecilia Laschi, who have been collaborating for years in bio-inspired robotics projects funded by the European Union, such as Octopus, the robotic octopus, and GrowBot, for the development of robots inspired by climbing plants, is the study and observation of the natural world and the behavior of living organisms. Just as the life cycle of a biological organism involves three distinct phases (growth, remodeling, and morphogenesis), robots can also become bio-inspired machines able to grow and adapt to the various contexts in which they perform their functions. Obviously, a biospirated approach cannot be limited to a copy of the organisms present in nature but must be based on understanding and the ability to extract principles and rules. Living beings are much more complex than a robot, they move in a dynamic and structured world, and are able to adapt their characteristics according to their surroundings. It is precisely this complexity that enables living beings to have effective sense-motor behavior. Often, however, robots are not able to cope with the complexity of the real world without requiring simplifications to make the environment suitable for them. Likewise, robots will need to maintain a structural complexity that will allow them to be effective and useful in real-world applications. A great lesson that can be learned from nature is that living beings are perfectly integrated into the natural environment, during their life cycle, and at its end. Today there is a disconnection between what is natural and what is technological, which exploits natural resources and at the end of its life cycle becomes waste for disposal. In line with recent trends in robotic research, future approaches will reverse the perspective on robot design, going beyond soft robotics, with robots able to grow, regenerate, change shape; beyond intelligent materials, thanks to biohybrid functions that will guarantee multifunctionality and biocompatibility; beyond evolutionary robotics, with systems that will not only adapt to the task and the environment in which they operate, but will improve with practice. This is the direction of robotics of the future, towards integrated systems that are perfectly compatible with a man and the environment, and able to improve well-being and quality of life.

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