This 3D Printer Is Soft On Robots

It always seems to us that the best robots mimic things that are alive. For an example look no further than the 3D printed mesh structures from researchers at North Carolina State University. External magnetic fields make the mesh-like “robot” flex and move while floating in water. The mechanism can grab small objects and carry something as delicate as a water droplet.

The key is a viscous toothpaste-like ink made from silicone microbeads, iron carbonyl particles, and liquid silicone. The resulting paste is amenable to 3D printing before being cured in an oven. Of course, the iron is the element that makes the thing sensitive to magnetic fields. You can see several videos of it in action, below.

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Walk It Off, Healing Robots

For many of us, our first robots, or technical projects, were flimsy ordeals built with cardboard, duct tape, and high hopes. Most of us grow past that scene, and we learn to work supplies which require more than a pair of kitchen scissors. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Iowa State University have made a material which goes beyond durable, it can heal itself when wounded. To a small robot, a standard hole puncher is a dire assailant, but the little guy in the video after the break keeps hopping around despite a couple of new piercings.

The researcher’s goal is to integrate this substance into bio-inspired robots which may come to harm in the field. Fish-like robots could keep swimming after a brush with a bit of coral or a curious predator. Robot snakes could keep slithering after a fall or a gravel road.

Of course, robotic simulacrums are not the only ones who can benefit from healing circuitry. Satellites are prey to punctures from errant space debris.

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Turn Your Teddy Bear Into A Robot With Yale’s “Robotic Skin”

Despite what we may have seen in the new Winnie the Pooh movie, our cherished plush toys don’t usually come to life. But if that’s the goal, we have ways of making it happen. Like these “robotic skins” from Yale University.

Each module is a collection of sensors and actuators mounted on a flexible substrate, which is then installed onto a flexible object serving as structure. In a simple implementation, the mechanical bits are sewn onto a piece of fabric and tied with zippers onto a piece of foam. The demonstration video (embedded below the break) runs through several more variations of the theme. From making a foam tube (“pool noodle”) crawl like a snake to making a horse toy’s legs move.

There’s a serious motivation behind these entertaining prototypes. NASA is always looking to reduce weight that must be launched into space, and this was born from the idea of modular robotics. Instead of actuators and sensors embedded in a single robot performing a specific function, these robotic skins can be moved around to different robot bodies to perform a variety of tasks. Such flexibility can open up more capabilities while occupying less weight on the rocket.

This idea is still early in development and the current level prototypes look like something most of us can replicate and improve upon for use in our projects. We’ve even got a controller for those pneumatics. With some more development, it may yet place among the ranks of esoteric actuators.

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Hold the Salt and Butter, This Popcorn Is For a Robot

Popcorn! Light and fluffy, it is a fantastically flexible snack. We can have them plain, create a savory snack with some salt and butter, or cover with caramel if you have a sweet tooth. Now Cornell University showed us one more way to enjoy popcorn: use their popping action as the mechanical force in a robot actuator.

It may be unorthodox at first glance, but it makes a lot of sense. We pop corn by heating its water until it turns into steam triggering a rapid expansion of volume. It is not terribly different from our engines burning an air-fuel mixture to create a rapid expansion of volume. Or using heat energy to boil water and trigger its expansion to steam. So a kernel of popcorn can be used as a small, simple, self-contained engine for turning heat energy into mechanical power.

Obviously it would be a single-use mechanism, but that’s perfectly palatable for the right niche. Single-use is a lot easier to swallow when popcorn is so cheap, and also biodegradable resulting in minimal residue. The research paper demonstrated three recipes to harness popping corn’s mechanical energy, but that is hardly an exhaustive list. There’s an open invitation to brainstorm other creations to add to the menu.

Of course, if you prefer candy over popcorn, you could build a robot actuator out of licorice instead.

Either way, the robot uprising will be delicious.

[via IEEE Spectrum]

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Papercraft-Inspired Snake-bot Slithers like a Real One

Blend the Japanese folding technique of Kirigami with an elastomer actuator, and what have you got? A locomoting snake robot that can huff around its own girth with no strings attached! That’s exactly what researchers at the Wyss Institute and Harvard School of Applied Sciences did to build their Kirigami Crawler.

Expanding and contracting propel this crawler forward. As the actuator expands, the hatched pattern on the plastic skin flares out; and when it contracts, the skin retracts to a smoother form. The flared hatch pattern acts like a cluster of little hooks, snagging multiple contact points into the ground. When the skin retracts, these hooks fold back inside while giving the body a slight push forward in the process. It’s a clever tactic, and almost identical to the way real-world snakes propel themselves. In fact, after iterating on a few skin patterns, they found that a trapezoidal pattern, which most closely resembles that of snakeskin, can cover ground fastest.

We’re thrilled to see such authentic biomimicry come to us without any extreme tooling or special molds. Still not satisfied with your share of crawling robots for one day? Have a peek into the past, and indulge yourself with a sine-wave locomotion.

Thanks for the tip, [Olivia]!

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Researchers Squeeze Out a New Breed of Robot Locomotion

Researchers have been playing around with various oddball forms of robot locomotion; surely, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? Not so! Lucky for us, [researchers at Stanford] are now showing us a new way for robots to literally extrude themselves from point A to point B.

This robot’s particular motion for mechanism involves unwinding itself inside out. From a stationary base, a reel caches meters of the robot’s uninflated polyethylene body, which it deploys by pressurizing. Researchers can make full 3D turns by varying the amount of inflated air in outer control chambers. What’s more, they can place end effectors or even payloads at the tip of the growing end with their position held in place by a cable.

As we can imagine, any robot that can squeeze its way up to 72 meters long can have dozens of applications, and the folks at Stanford have explored a host of nooks and crannies of this space. Along the way, they deploy complex antenna shapes into the air, deliver small payloads, extinguish fires, and squeeze through all sorts of uninviting places such as flytraps and even a bed of nails. We’ve placed a video below the break, but have a look at Ars Technica’s full video suite to get a sense of the sheer variety of applications that they imparted upon their new creation.

Biomimetics tends to get us to cry “gecko feet” or “snake robots” without thinking too hard. But these forms of locomotion that come to mind all seem to derive from the animal kingdom. One key element of this soft robot is that its stationary base and vine-like locomotion both have its roots in the plant kingdom. It’s a testament to just how unexplored this realm may be, and that researchers and robots will continue to develop new ways of artificially “getting around” for years to come.

Thanks for the tip, [Jacob!]

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Softer Side of Robots is Future of Space

What will next generation space suits look like? Kari Love is making the case that new space suits will exhibit the best in soft robot technology. The problem is that most people don’t really understand much about soft robots, or about space for that matter. Her talk at the Hackaday SuperConference explores the research she has been doing into future generations of space suits. Check out the video below and then join us after the break for more on this topic.

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