May 11, 2015 | By Alec

While lots of designs for basic 3D printed robots exist already, most of those are capable of very little. Most just shuffle across the table a little bit or give us an LED lightshow. While fun, they contribute little to the development of actual affordable and complex robotics. And in that respect, news coming from the Autonomous Control Engineering Laboratory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where students have built a very impressive 3D printed RC/autonomous 3D printed robot capable of not just opening and closing valves, but also locating them through a mixture of cam-based navigation and autonomous movement.

As Eric Wineman, one of students working on this project explained to, the original idea for this interesting robot was born out of an Intelligent Robotics Course taught by Dr. Mo Jamshidi and inspired by Wineman’s work for the US Air Force. ‘At work, 3D printing lets us prototype our parts quickly and cheaply. My group and I thought that 3D printing could greatly help with robotic designs and provide a great deal of utility for a given task. Thus my advisor for my Master’s degree (Dr. Mo Jamshidi) suggested this project,’ he explains.

The team, consisting of undergraduates and graduates Jonathan Tapia, Daniel Clifton, Ethan Cobb and dr. John Parsi (as well as Wineman himself), thus set out to explore the potential of 3D printing for the field of robotics. All are working towards degrees in different aspects of engineering. The goal of their shared project? ‘To demonstrate the utility that 3D printing can provide to robotic development,’ Wineman says. As he explains, they set out to build a robot capable of actually and realistically providing assistance to humans, for instance in potential disaster situations.

And if you’ve ever seen a movie about a capsized ship, you will know that valves are life-saving, so that’s exactly what this robot focusses on. ‘The goal of the robot is to determine the location of a valve (Radio Controlled and Autonomously). Then, the robot is to navigate to the valve and open or close it,’ Wineman says. A large part of that autonomous action is recognizing the right valves, for which the team has settled on a color code. ‘Essentially, the robot looks at a color code attached to a valve and navigates over to the valve to perform the desired operation. In the future we would like to increase our breadth of applications using more 3D printed arm attachments,’ Wineman adds.

The robot itself can be seen in the second half of the clip.

And as you can see in the clip above, the resultant robot is very capable of finding the valve (with a little help from a mounted camera) and executing its instructions. The unusual wheels made for the robot, as you can see, give it further flexibility in movement which will definitely be necessary in emergency situations.

As Wineman explains, the robot was designed using SolidWorks modeling software and subsequently largely 3D printed using a Cube 3 3D printer from 3D Systems as well as a couple of Luzbot Taz 4 3D printers. In fact, all structural parts have been 3 printed, except for those interesting mecanum wheels. ‘Which we could 3D print, but we did not have enough time this semester,’ he explains. A couple of extra electronics – a CMUcam 5 (Pixy Camera), Brushed Pololu DC Motors, an Arduino Mega 2560, 4 Cytron 13A Motor Drivers, 4 Herkulex DRS-101 and DRS-102 Smart Servo Motors and a servo for the arm base – completed the design.

The result is a very interesting robot that definitely shows off the potential of 3D printed robotics. Wineman also told us that a few other student groups at the Engineering department have since embraced 3D printing technology for a bunch of projects, including 3D printed quadcopters and applications to assist the elderly in their daily life. It looks like the future of this technology in smart robotics is very bright indeed.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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