May 4, 2015 | By Alec

Those of you who’ve tried their hand at 3D printed robotics will surely have reached a point where they thought ‘this will never work’ or ‘this is going to break apart any second’. And that’s hardly surprising, as many 3D printed robots and quadcopters are just very flimsy. But it looks like that is slowly changing, as durability and capability is becoming more and more important in 3D printed robotics. And that is exactly what the organizers of the second annual Additive Vehicle Design Competition are trying to achieve.

Held for the second time last Friday, the competition truly puts 3D printed robots to the test by placing them in a series of hazardous, unstable and inaccessible environments. Where can your 3D printed robot survive? The idea is that 3D printed robots will slowly become more and more suitable for use in reconnaissance and search-and-rescue type missions in remote deserts, mountain ranges and other locations notoriously unsuited for plastic robots.

And the turnout last Friday was excellent. Held at Virginia Tech's Rector Field House, twelve student teams from Virigina Tech and the Colorado-based U.S. Air Force Academy competed for the first prize of $4,000 (and additional prizes of $11,000 in total). And these were the cream of the entries, as a massive eighty teams (consisting of 205 students) initially registered, though the event is free and open to the general public as well.

As organizers and associate professors at Virginia Tech Christopher Williams and Al Wicks explained, a harsh pre-competition was held to narrow things down. ‘Similar to last year, we had freshman all the way to Ph.D. students from all over the university sign up, forming more than 80 teams. With help from an external panel of judges from federal and industrial organizations, 12 teams were selected to participate in Friday’s final competition,’ Williams said.

And things were even more intense than during last year’s challenge. This year, all designs needed to have a dual function of being both ground-based and capable of flying. The event, which began at 9 A.M., required participants to compete on seven separate air and ground environments before moving on to an integrated obstacle course that combines ground and air challenges of a post-earthquake scenario. Using on-board cameras, the students had to search for survivors. ‘The idea is can you deploy a 3-D printer in a rural area out in the field at the sight of a natural disaster and on the spot manufacture solutions to your needs,’ Williams explained. ‘We have a field where the vehicle has to both traverse through rough rubble and course sand we have obstacles in the air where figure eight speed runs.’

And as Williams explained, this dual nature of the robots definitely makes things more difficult. ‘Having both functions makes the vehicle significantly more complex, with more on-board components such as both wheels/treads and rotor blades, more motors, more speed controllers, and bigger batteries, all of which mean more vehicle weight and more complex controls programming,’ he argued. All vehicles also needed to be primarily 3D printed and needed to match certain size constraints.

As this competition can have far-reaching consequences for search-and-rescue missions, its perhaps unsurprising that the Office of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology sponsored the event (alongside a number of other private corporations). Hardware was supplied by engineering firm Robotic Research, while cash prizes were provided by the Stiefel Family Foundation. The competition itself was organized by Williams’ DREAMS Wicks’ Mechatronics Lab.

Judges came from both the public and private sector, and focused on three aspects: vehicle design, performance, and efficiency in finishing the obstacle courses. While all participants struggled here and there, judges were reportedly very impressed by the various inventive entries. ‘Yes we will have lots of successes and quite a few failures. We designed a lot of the obstacles to be very challenging,’ Williams said. But that’s exactly how progress is made.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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