This first-of-its-kind, autonomous robot blasts off like a UFO.
In a paper published Thursday in Science magazine, engineers from Harvard University and the UC San Diego have revealed a 3D-printed, autonomous robot capable of over 30 untethered jumps without connection to an external computer or power source. Actuated by a combination of butane and oxygen, this little bot can leap two and a half feet into the air — up to six times its body height.
Inspired by nature, the project uses the combination of both hard and soft materials which its designers say make it a more efficient jumper. For example, certain species of mussels have a foot that starts out soft and then becomes rigid at the point where it makes contact with rocks.
“In nature, complexity has a very low cost,” explains Michael Tolley, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UC San Diego. “Using new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, we’re trying to translate this to robotics.”
Soft robotics is surely a hot topic at the moment, as engineers are finding them to be much more adaptable and resilient than their conventional, metal-based counterparts. However, their flexibility comes at a coast: they tend to be slower, more difficult to fabricate and challenging to make autonomous due to the fact that most motors, pumps, batteries, sensors and microcontrollers are rigid.
Fortunately, the joint research project has come up with a design that offers a new solution to this conundrum by integrating hard and soft materials. In other words, the best of both worlds.
The combustion-powered robot is comprised of two hemispheres: a soft, plunger-like body with three pneumatic legs at the bottom and a 3D-printed, sturdy core on top. The latter houses a custom circuit board, a high-voltage power source, a battery, a miniature air compressor, a butane fuel cell, six solenoid valves, an oxygen cartridge and pressure regulator and ducts to move the gas and stuff around as necessary. What’s more, it has nine graduating levels of stiffness.
In order to determine the perfect gradient of firmness, researchers tried a couple prototypes. And what they found was that a fully rigid top would make for higher jumps, while a flexible top was more likely to survive impacts on landing, allowing the robot to be reused.
For movement, the robot inflates its pneumatic legs to tilt its body in the direction that it wants to go. From there, butane and oxygen are mixed together and ignited, catapulting it into the air like a UFO. Once the chemical charge is exhausted, the bottom hemisphere goes back to its original shape. Researchers say that the robot’s jumping ability and soft body can come in handy in harsh and unpredictable or disastrous environments, enabling it to survive large falls and other unexpected situations.
In a series of tests, the robot was able to leap two and a half feet in height and half a foot laterally. Beyond that, it jumped more than 100 times and survived an additional 35 falls from a height of nearly four feet.
Interested? Read the project’s entire article here.