Apr 18, 2018 | By David

A joint research project between the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the University of Minnesota has been making use of 3D printing technology in order to develop new soft robots, for use in combat situations. Like in many 3D printed soft robotics projects, the researchers are taking inspiration from the natural world and attempting to model their 3D printed soft robots after biological structures. The Army hopes to draw on the flexibility of invertebrates, such as squids, as a way to improve the manoeuvrability, resilience, and stealth of its robots on the battlefield.

(credit: Shutterstock)

According to Army researcher Dr. Ed Habtour, who specializes in nonlinear structural dynamics, "Successful stealthy maneuvering requires high structural flexibility and distributive control to sneak into confined or restricted spaces, operate for extended periods and emulate biological morphologies and adaptability".

Dr. Ed Habtour works in the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Vehicle Technology Directorate

The robots currently used for military operations are largely composed of rigid mechanical and electrical parts and components, limiting their flexibility. Their achieving more complex types of motion is also dependent on circuitries and mechanisms that are elaborate and complicated. A key goal of future military robotics research would be to get the same types of motion from more basic mechanisms, and to reduce their complexity and improve the way they are built. This is what led the researchers to look at the natural world.

The team did studies of invertebrate animals such as worms, octopi and insects, to examine how they were able to achieve efficient motion without backbones or other rigid parts. After gaining a thorough understanding of the mechanisms behind these soft distributed actuation circuitries, they then used their insights to put together a 3D printed prototype.

Drawing on a generalized model, they made use of 3D printing and soft, stretchable materials with similar mechanical properties to invertebrate organisms. The prototype is the first fully 3D printed dielectric elastomer actuator (DEA) which can perform high bending motion. Further tests were then carried out on this 3D printed prototype to gain more useful data.

(Current military robots. Credit: Boston Dynamics)

''The research findings represent an important stepping stone towards providing the Solider an autonomous freeform fabrication platform - a next-generation 3D printer, which can print functional materials and devices - to generate soft actuators and potentially tetherless soft robots on demand, on the fly and at the point of need'', Habtour said.

Soft robots modelled after invertebrates would not only have benefits for military operations in terms of their functionality, they would also be a lot easier for soldiers to put together in demanding conditions. The fundamental material properties of soft DEAs would give the robots their necessary manoeuvrability. This means that they could be easily 3D printed on the battlefield by soldiers with limited prior technical knowledge. Also, unlike with current 3D printed DEAs, post-processing steps like drying and assembly would not be necessary, saving lots of time.

(credit: U.S. Army Research Lab)

Ongoing research will develop knowledge of the principles behind invertebrate animals’ flexible locomotion and resilience further, which could have even more useful applications. ''The intriguing interactions among the materials’ micro mechanical properties and various nonlinearities may provide new scientific opportunities to emulate the symbiotic interactions in biological systems'', said Habtour. ''If we can understand these interactions, then we can use those insights to fabricate dynamic structures and flexible robots which are designed to be self-aware, self-sensing, and capable of adjusting their morphologies and properties in real time to adapt to a myriad of external and internal conditions.''

The results of the study were published in the journal Extreme Mechanics Letters (EML) in a paper entitled "3-D printed electrically-driven soft actuators".

 

 

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