If you haven’t yet heard, there’s a new advance in the field or robotics now taking shape – quite literally in fact. Known as ’Soft Robotics’, this emerging science aims to break down the physical differences that remain between humans and robots.
The ‘Human’ Challenge
Until now, robots have been hard-bodied and made of materials that are many times more rigid and strong than the soft tissues in our bodies. And as a result, they don’t resemble humans in anything other than general form. Peter Walters and David McGoran are two researchers at the University of West England, Bristol, who are working to change that.
Working out of the 3D Printing Lab at the university's Center for Fine Print Research, they've created an 'artificial muscle' that closely mimics the movement and function of tentacles that you'd find in an octopus or jellyfish. The artificial muscles are made from a Shape Memory Alloy material (Biometal) which contracts when heated by an electric current. The biometal wire is embedded inside a 3D printed tentacle arm which is able to move in various directions when stimulated.
Why 3D Printing?
3D printing is able to provide the complex shape, complete with cavities for the Biometal wires to run through, that would be difficult for conventional silicone molding to replicate. By directly 3D printing the tentacles, the researchers are able to cut out the molding stage altogether, speed up design iterations and easily make changes to the tentacle structures without the high price of changing the molding tools.
The tenticles in these photos are created on an Objet 3D printer – the only technology in the world able to 3D print both rigid and rubber-like materials together within the same structure. The Objet-printed parts are the blue sections. These are actually made from Objet TangoPlus™ transparent rubber-like material which have then been dyed blue after 3D printing and cleaning.
Next Step: 3D Printed Androids?
Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov first used the term ‘robotics’ in 1941. As one of my all-time favourite authors, his Robot and Foundation stories captured my imagination as a teenager. One of the central characters in these novels was a humanoid robot called ‘Daneel Olivaw’ who worked to help save humanity and establish a Galactic Empire through space. Daneel looked like a human being down to the smallest details, yet under his synthetic skin, Asimov described ‘wires and steel’.
With further advances using 3D printing and biometals, perhaps it won’t be too long before we see real working androids created using multi-material 3D printing. Using such a system would enable designers to combine rigid 3D printed bones and joints seamlessly connected to flexible 3D printed soft tissues – and all powered by biometal nerves and tendons, precisely nestled in the complex branch-ways within.
What next? Perhaps humaniod robots blasting into space to terraform Mars for human settlement?
For more on the 3D printed tentacle work, read Peter Walters' and David McGoran's academic paper, which they presented at IS&T Digital Fabrication 2011.