Engineers from the University of California San Diego have created a new way to make soft, flexible 3D-printed robots that don’t require special equipment and only take minutes to build. The innovation the researchers have come up with comes to a rethinking of the way soft robots are built. Rather than figuring out how to add soft materials to a rigid robot body, the researcher started with a soft body and attached rigid features to critical components.
The team says that the builders were inspired by insect exoskeletons that have both soft and rigid parts. The creation has been dubbed “flexoskeleton.” The new method of production allows the construction of soft components robots in a small fraction of the time previously needed and at a fraction of the cost.
Researchers on the project hope that the Flexoskeletons will lead to the creation of a new class of soft-bio inspired robots. Researcher Nick Gravish says that the team wants to make soft robots easier to build for researchers over the world.” Researchers can use the new technique to build large groups of flexoskeleton robots with little manual assembly combined with a library of Lego-like components allowing the robot parts to be easily swapped.
Robots are made from 3D printing rigid material on a thin sheet that acts as a flexible base. The components are printed with various features and increased rigidity in specific areas, another aspect of the design inspired by insect exoskeletons.
One flexoskeleton component takes 10 minutes to print and costs less than a dollar. The printing can be completed on most low-cost commercially available printers. Printing and assembly for an entire robot takes under two hours. The team says that a swarm of the small robots could do as much work as one or more large robots could do on their own.