Researchers at the University of California – San Diego have tapped into the powers of 3D printing to create a soft four-legged robot that can walk over difficult terrain. Whether it’s climbing over small rocks or crawling through confined spaces, the tethered robot is “designed to capture sensor readings in dangerous environments.”

3D Printing Technology & Robotics

Over the past few years, the world has seen 3D printer technology advance exponentially. It was only a matter of time before researchers were able to use innovative filament materials to layer a more functional robotic prototype. With some of the best printers capable of printing soft and rigid materials, the University of California team could move forward with an out-of-the-box shape for its four-legged robot.

Leading the research is mechanical engineering professor Michael Tolley – who will be presenting the robot at this year’s IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore (May 29th – June 3rd). “Bringing together soft and rigid materials will help create a new generation of fast, agile robots that are more adaptable than their predecessors and can safely work side by side with humans,” said Tolley.

Inspired by Nature

According to the research team, nature was all the design inspiration they needed: “In nature, complexity has a very low cost. Using new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, we’re trying to translate this into robotics.” The combination both hard and soft 3D printing materials were exactly what the researchers needed to turn their vision into reality. The end result: the first robotic prototype that can shuffle, crawl, and most importantly, walk.

Every step of robot’s design was carefully calculated whether it was predicting movement over small rocks or its ability to crawl in super confined spaces. Dylan Drotman, a Ph.D. student at the Jacobs School of Engineering, was responsible for the predictive modeling process and his due diligence was spot on.

With a full arsenal of 3D printing technology at their disposal, the University of California research team incorporated state-of-the-art design techniques into their four-legged prototype. The legs are made from a 3D printed rubber filament and have sealed inflatable chambers. On the outside, the chambers are bellowed – making it easy to maneuver the robot. Controlling the robot is a matter of inflating the chambers which cause the legs to bend. The final prototype: a versatile robot capable of tackling terrain in harsh environmental conditions.

Ready for Sensor Reading Missions

Designed in an X-type fashion to support the base, the four-legged robot is tethered to an open source board and an air pump. With the hopes of moving past the prototype phase into development, the researcher’s next move is to miniaturize the board and the pump – freeing the robot from the board so it can walk autonomously. “The challenge here is to find the right design for the board the right components, such as power sources and batteries,” Tolley said.

When one industry uses the technology of another, magic is bound to happen. The University of California researchers were able to integrate 3D printing technology into their four-legged robot concept. In doing so, they have created a versatile robot capable of completing sensor reading missions in dangerous environments.

Source: Jacobs School of Engineering