3D printed soft robot with four legs

3D-printed soft robot is capable of walking over rough surfaces

Image credit: University of California San Diego

Engineers at the University of California (UC) San Diego have designed a soft robot that can climb over obstacles and walk over sand and stone, in what they believe is a world first.

The device was made possible thanks to the use of a high-end 3D printer, which made it possible for the researchers to combine soft and rigid materials within the same component. This allowed for the design of more complex robotic legs.

Each leg is made up of three hollow chambers, 3D-printed with a rubbery material. These can be inflated with an air pump, allowing engineers to control their motion. For instance, when one chamber in a leg is inflated and the other two are not, the leg bends. By adapting timing and order of inflation, and the amount of pressure used, the robot’s gait can be adapted.

Previously, soft robots have only been capable of limited movement, normally shuffling along the ground. This robot, however, is capable of lifting its legs more than 5cm off the ground to walk. The engineers at UC San Diego’s Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab found that it was able to walk across sandy, rocky surfaces, and on slopes.

The robot was also capable of transitioning from a walk to a crawl in confined spaces, like a cat wriggling into a small gap.

The bellowed legs form an X shape, and are connected to a rigid body. The robot itself is tethered to an open-source board. By miniaturising the board and air pump, the engineers hope to be able to make the robot walk autonomously.

According to Professor Michael Tolley, head of the robotics lab, bringing together soft and rigid materials – inspired by biology – will help create a new generation of agile, adaptable robots which could work safely alongside humans.

“In nature, complexity has a very low cost,” he said. “Using new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, we’re trying to translate this to robotics.”

3D printing components for robotics rather than relying on conventional moulding methods is cheaper, and allows for more versatility. Simple 3D-printed robots have proved extremely popular, and are widely available as toys and learning resources, such as Zowi, Apogee and Poppy Humanoid.

The quadrupedal robot could be developed to capture sensor readings in dangerous environments, or in rough search-and-rescue terrains. It will be presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore later this month.

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