3D printed, soft robot traverses rough surfaces

A team of Engineers at the University of California San Diego, have developed what it says is the first 3D printed, soft robot capable of climbing over obstacles and walking on different terrains and rough surfaces, such as sand and pebbles. The robot could be used to capture sensor readings in dangerous environments or for search and rescue.

A high-end printer made it possible for the researchers to print soft and rigid materials together within the same components, making it possible to design more complex shapes for the robot's legs.

“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 Michael Tolley, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California San Diego.

The idea of blending soft and hard materials into the robot's body came from nature, he added. “In nature, complexity has a very low cost, using new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, we're trying to translate this to robotics.”

The engineers successfully tested the tethered robot on large rocks, inclined surfaces and sand. The robot also transitioned from walking to crawling into an increasingly confined space.

The current quadruped robot prototype is tethered to an open source board and an air pump. The researchers are now working on miniaturising both the board and the pump so that the robot can walk independently. The challenge is to find the right design for the board and the right components, such as power sources and batteries.