This 3D-Printed, Bio-Inspired Bot Can Jump Six Times Its Body Height

”The wonderful thing about soft robots is that they lend themselves to abuse."

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Jul 9 2015, 6:00pm

The robot jumped two and a half feet (0.75 m) in height and half a foot (0.15m) laterally. It jumped more than 100 times and survived 35 falls from heights close to four feet. Image: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego/Harvard University

Steely industrial robots are known for their speed and precision, and soft robots for their adaptability and resilience. So what happens when you mash up the best of both worlds? You get a super-resilient 3D-printed robot that can jump six times its body height.

In a study published in today's issue of Science magazine, engineers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego outline the design, manufacturing, and testing of this bio-inspired 3D-printed soft bot with a rigid centre and soft exterior. The researchers took inspiration from certain species of mussels that have a soft foot that stiffens when it touches hard surfaces.

"We believe that bringing together soft and rigid material will help create a new generation of fast, agile robots that are more robust and adaptable than their predecessors and can safely work side by side with humans," said Michael Tolly, study co-lead author and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UC San Diego, in a press statement.

The robot is made of two parts. The 3D-printed top half is like a half-shell, while the marshmallow-like bottom half, with three pneumatic legs, is flexible and houses the oxygen and butane. The two parts surround a rigid centre that contains the robot's electronic brains and power sources. Once the gases are ignited, the bottom half inflates and catapults the robot skyward. The robot can manage a total of 30 untethered jumps.

The researchers reckon that the mashup of soft and hard materials will make the robot more damage proof as well as safer for humans to interact with, and envision its use in everything from unpredictable environments and disaster situations in the future. They also believe that soft robots will be safer for humans to interact with.

"The wonderful thing about soft robots is that they lend themselves nicely to abuse," added Nicholas Bartlett, first author of the paper and a graduate student at SEAS, in a press statement.