Researchers at the University of California San Diego have built the world’s first soft robot that, unlike most of its conventional counterparts who are only capable of crawling or shuffling on a flat surface, can actually lift its legs and navigate a rough terrain, such as sand and pebbles.
The robot was manufactured using a high-end 3D printer which allowed the research team to combine both soft and rigid materials within the same component, leading to more complex shapes for the robot’s legs. The manufacturing process was inspired by natural systems where complexity does not come at a high price.
According to team leader Professor Michael Tolley, building robots through printing is much faster and less expensive than relying on moulds.
The four legs of the new robot, laid out in the shape of an X and attached to a rigid body, are basically a set of inflatable bellows – hollow on the inside and shaped like an accordion on the outside, which allows the engineers to control it with more precision.
The robot moves by timing the inflation of its limbs – when one chamber is inflated and the other two are not, the leg bends. The robot’s gait depends on the order of the timing, the amount of pressure and the order in which the pistons in its legs are inflated.
Tests showed the is capable of navigating sand, rocks, and incline surfaces, and can also crawl into increasingly narrow spaces – much like a cat would.
Bringing together soft and rigid materials could pave the way for a new generation of fast and agile robots that are more adaptable and conducive to working alongside humans in rescue operations and data retrieval missions in dangerous environments.
Currently, the robot is tethered to an open source board and an air pump – both of which the team will now attempt to miniaturise and make the robot move autonomously. The challenge here is to find the right design for the board and the right components, such as power sources and batteries.
The robot will be presented during the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore, set to take place 29 May to 03 June.