May 17, 2017 | By Benedict

Engineers at the University of California San Diego have used 3D printing to make a soft robot that can walk on rough surfaces such as sand. The 3D printed robot could be used to capture sensor readings in dangerous environments or for search and rescue missions.

Soft robotics, the field of constructing robots from soft, flexible materials, is generally seen as the gateway to creating biologically inspired artificial robots. Itching to see a lifelike humanoid robot like something out of Blade Runner? Soft robotics is now your best bet.

Given the relative newness of the discipline, however, there are still lots of obstacles in the way of creating effective soft robots.

It’s therefore exciting to learn that researchers at the University of California San Diego have just created a soft robot that can overcome one of a robot’s most literal obstacles: rough terrain.

The researchers have 3D printed a four-legged soft robot that they say is capable of walking on sand, pebbles, and other rough surfaces. This is largely thanks to the complexity of the robot’s legs, which contain both hard and soft materials.

Michael T. Tolley, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the university’s Jacobs School of Engineering, supervised the research project, whose primary student was PhD candidate Dylan Drotman. Tolley says that using both hard and soft 3D printed materials could lead to the creation of next-generation robots that are more adaptable than their predecessors and more safe for human interaction.

The assistant professor believes that 3D printing is an important part of this process, since it eliminates the need for molds, reducing both time and cost.

Additive manufacturing on a multi-material 3D printer also allows users to create complex, functional parts like the legs of the new robot. These legs are made up of three parallel actuators— sealed inflatable chambers—that were 3D printed in a rubber-like material. These chambers are hollow on the inside and have bellows on the outside, which allows the researchers to easily control the robot’s leg movement: when one chamber is inflated and the other two are deflated, the leg bends.

This clever leg mechanism has already proven its worth, with the researchers successfully making the robot walk over terrain like sand and rocks. They can even make the 3D printed bot transition from a walking gait to a crawling movement—by precisely adjusting pressure levels and the order in which the pistons in its four legs are inflated.

But this isn’t just a theoretical showcase of robotic capabilities. Tolley and Drotman think that 3D printed robots like their four-legged creation could be used for important tasks such as capturing sensor readings in dangerous environments or taking part in search and rescue missions. Soft robots had previously struggled with difficult terrain, preventing them from being deployed in situations of this sort.

Before the promise of practical applications can become a reality, however, the robot needs further adjustments. Currently, the 3D printed bot is tethered to an open source board and an air pump, so it can’t get very far on its own. The researchers are therefore working to minimize both the board and pump so they can be integrated into the robot.

The researchers will present the robot and the associated research paper at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation from May 29 to June 3 in Singapore.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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