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Jumping Robot Avoids Damage Using 3D-Printed Housing

The image on the left shows how the rigid top fractures on landing. The top made of nine layers of differing flexibility (shown right) remains intact. (Photo credit: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego/Harvard University.)
The image on the left shows how the rigid top fractures on landing. The top made of nine layers of differing flexibility (shown right) remains intact. (Photo credit: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego/Harvard University.)

A new, 3D printed robot features an interesting body with a rigid core and a soft exterior. The rigid layers make for a better interface with the device’s electronics and power supply. The soft layers allow it to jump up to 2.5 feet high without sustaining damage.

“We believe that bringing together soft and rigid materials will help create a new generation of fast, agile robots that are more robust and adaptable than their predecessors and can safely work side by side with humans,” said Michael Tolley, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UC San Diego. Tolley was lead author on a paper about the robot, together with Nicholas Bartlett, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute.

As with many robots made today, the inspiration for this jumping bot came from nature. In this case, mussels were the unlikely source of inspiration. Some of the creatures have a soft foot becomes rigid at where it touches a rock. “In nature, complexity has a very low cost,” Tolley said. “Using new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, we’re trying to translate this to robotics.”

The researchers hope their work integrating hard and soft components will help speed up soft robots, which tend to be slow — particularly when untethered.

The top hemisphere of the robot is a 3D-printed dome in once piece that has nine layers of differing stiffness: hard on the inside and rubbery on the outside. An exclusively hard top would have enabled higher jumps. But the flexible part provides protection while landing.

The bottom of the robot has a small chamber where oxygen and butane are injected, to power the jumps. When the gases ignite, the flexible bottom rapidly inflates almost instantaneously, and the bot leaps. The researchers said in their experiments, the robot was able to jump more than 100 times and can move up to half a foot laterally in a single jump.

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