A team of UCLA engineers has developed a new 3D printing technique and design strategy that enables one-step building of robots.
The new study, which shows how the robots can be constructed and walk, maneuver and jump, was published in Science†
Pioneering 3D printing process
The new technique involves a 3D printing process for engineered multi-function active materials, or ‘metamaterials’. It enables the fabrication of all the mechanical and electronic systems needed to run a robot simultaneously. After the ‘metabo’ has been printed in 3D, it can perform movement, propulsion, sensing and decision making.
The printed material consists of an internal network of sensory, moving and structural elements that move on their own after programming. Because this internal network is brought together in one place, you only need to produce one external part: the small battery to power the robot.
Xiaoyu (Rayne) Zheng is the study’s principal investigator and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, as well as mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.
“We envision that this design and printing methodology of smart robotic materials will help realize a class of autonomous materials that could replace the current complex assembly process for creating a robot,” said Zheng. “With complex movements, multiple modes of detection, and programmable decision-making capabilities, all tightly integrated, it’s akin to a biological system where the nerves, bones and tendons work together to perform controlled movements.”
The team integrated a built-in battery and controller to create fully autonomous 3D-printed robots. Each of the robots is the size of a fingernail, and Zheng says this new method could lead to new designs for biomedical robots. One such biomedical robot could be a swimming robot that autonomously navigates near blood vessels to deliver drugs to target locations in the body.
Another use for the 3D-printed bots is to send them into dangerous environments, such as a collapsed building, where a swarm of them can access tight spaces. These metabots can then assess threat levels and assist in rescue efforts.
This is a major breakthrough in robotics as most of today’s robots require a series of complex manufacturing steps to build them. This process results in heavier, bulkier and weaker robots.
To develop the new method, the team relied on a class of complicated lattice materials that change shape and direction in response to an electric field. They can also create an electrical charge as a result of physical forces.
Developing new robotic materials
The robotic materials developed by the team are only the size of a penny and consist of structural elements that help them bend, twist, expand, contract or rotate at high speeds.
In addition, the team has released a methodology that can be used to design the robotic materials, allowing users to create their own models.
Hauchen Cui is the lead author of the study and a UCLA postdoctoral scientist in Zheng’s Additive Manufacturing and Metamaterials Lab.
“This allows controls to be precisely arranged throughout the robot for fast, complex and elaborate movements on different types of terrain,” Cui said. “The two-way piezoelectric effect also allows the robotic materials to sense their own twists, detect obstacles through echoes and ultrasonic emissions, and respond to external stimuli through a feedback control loop that determines how the robots move, how fast they move, and toward what target.” they move.”
The team used the method to build three different metabots that demonstrated different capabilities:
- Metabo that navigates around S-shaped corners and randomly placed obstacles
- Metabo bot that can escape from contact impact
- Metabot walking over rough terrain and making small jumps
This new 3D printing technique will play a major role in the field of robotics, making the construction of such robots much more efficient.
This groundbreaking research also included graduate students authors Desheng Yao, Ryan Hensleigh, Zhenpeng Xu, and Haotian Lu; Ariel Calderon, a postdoctoral researcher; Zhen Wang, development engineer; Sheyda Davaria, a research associate at Virginia Tech; Patrick Mercier, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego; and Pablo Tarazaga, professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University.