Robots are expensive and still undergoing development phase. That is to say, there’s still a lot that needs to be done when it comes to robotics. Thanks to 3D printing, robotic industry has taken a giant step forward towards a better and improved robotic industry. Researchers at MIT have created a 3D printed shock-absorbing skin that will, potentially speaking, allow the robots to become more resistant to damage. This can be achieved by varying the stiffness of material while it is being made – a bumper that can absorb energy in much more efficient ways.
The team belongs to MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and calls this bumper a ‘programmable viscoelastic material’ (PVM). The 3D printer allows for the creation of a material with multiple materials each exhibiting its own mechanical properties. This phenomenon is why the name has ‘programming’ in it. You do not need a new kind of 3D printer for this approach. In fact, the team made use of a standard 3D printer for incorporating a solid, liquid and a flexible rubber kind material called TangoBlack in their designs of PVM.
By gaining precise control over the dampening capacity of robot’s skin, the team is able to carry out customization that would otherwise be impractical. Why? The conventional dampening materials come in specific levels of softness and sizes. This means that although you might be able to protect a robot with it, the material would still either be too soft or too hard in different spots to provide optimal protection. The custom dampening material allows the team to tune it to specific application.
The team came up with the design of a simple cube-shaped flipping robot for carrying out tests. The robot features a rigid body, two motors, some sensors, a micro-controller and a battery. It has been covered with PVM created by the team featuring a flexible outer layer with a solid internal structure and pockets of liquid. The liquid is sealed and doesn’t cure thus allowing the material to retain its programmed viscoelasticity.
Once the cube makes use of its motor or flipping itself, the landing takes places with very little bounce thanks to the energy being absorbed by the skin rather than causing a shock to robot and resulting in an increased bounce. MIT CSAIL Director Daniela Rus says, “That reduction makes all the difference for preventing a rotor from breaking off of a drone or a sensor from cracking when it hits the floor. These materials allow us to 3D-print robots with viscoelastic properties that can be inputted by the user at print-time as part of the fabrication process.”
A similar robot without the PVM layer was able to land with only 25% accuracy because it bounced around a lot more – definitely an undesired result in case the robot is an expensive robot that can incur damage following such landings. The robot with PVM skin registered only 1/250th the amount of energy internally as it transferred to the ground.
The research team is hopeful that PVM materials can be used for a variety of applications outside of robotics as well. They foresee it being used as coverings for flying delivery drones and in helmets for imparting better protection. The custom programmable viscoelastic material can also be used for shoes to transfer less energy to the user’s feet. What do you think of this technology? Do let us know!