The University of California-San Diego’s Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab is one of the foremost American stations of innovation when it comes to improving upon and developing robotic technologies. Mechanical engineering professor Michael Tolley’s team of researchers work to develop several robotic innovations, from heterogeneous, self-assembling swarm robots to a 3D-printed robot that can maneuver through terrains that few, if any, other autonomous robots can.
It is the latter innovation, which combines multi-material additive manufacturing and inspiration from real-world organisms that is a truly eye-catching development in robotics and 3D-printing.
The multi-layer 3D-printing using the Object 350 Connex 3 system from Stratasys fortifies the robot with both soft and rigid materials to provide both stability and versatility of motion that makes its multi-terrain navigability possible. Because the robot’s legs are comprised of pliable, soft material that conforms to its terrain, it does not need precise sensors to navigate its surroundings. Further, the bot can adapt its gait to maneuver the given terrain.
The bladder-based system which allows the legs to contract and expand has been previously used in other soft robotic technologies and is inspired in part by the octopus and squid, which can shrink their forms to fit through tight crevices, and to re-expand at will. The robot’s gait, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the turtle’s.
Tolley elaborated on the incremental process of designing robotic legs that rely upon bladder-based technology.
Before, we had these channels that we were inflating to make the legs bend one way, said Tolley. But to do what I wanted to do, we would have to make the legs bend around different axes. We couldn’t do it with the simple layered molding techniques we did before. We actually had to come up with a way of repeatably and rapidly making more complex 3D printed bladders.
This multi-axial range of motion is the crux of what makes this soft robotic robot so unique. One potential real-world use for this kind of versatile, terrain-independent robot – especially when deployed in large numbers – is the ability to assist humans in large-scale search and rescues missions, though more uses will certainly emerge as the technology continues to be improved upon.