Robotic assistants are expected to become increasingly marketable as caregivers; however, the external hard structure of current caregiving robots prevents them from establishing a safe human-robot interaction. Recent advances in material science have enabled the fabrication of robots with deformable bodies or the ability to reshape when touched, but the complex design, fabrication, and control of soft robots currently hinders the commercialization of this technology and its use for at-home applications.
Researchers have developed a new design method that enables the design and fabrication of soft robots using a 3D printer. The design process involves three steps. First, a user makes a computer-aided design file with the shape of the robot. The user then paints the CAD file to show which directions the different joints of the soft robot will move. A computer algorithm takes a few seconds to convert the CAD model into a 3D architected soft machine (ASM) that can be printed using any conventional 3D printer.
The architected soft machines move like humans but instead of muscles, they rely on miniaturized motors that pull from nylon lines tied to the ends of their limbs. They can be squeezed and stretched to more than 900 percent of their original length.
The ASMs can perform complex motions such as gripping or crawling — a step forward toward the development of autonomous and lightweight soft robots.
They can change their body configuration and gait to adapt to a variety of environments, making them useful as disaster-response robots.