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MIT Researchers Develop Shock-Absorbent 3D-Printed Robots With Soft Skins [VIDEO]

4 October 2016, 9:22 pm EDT By Regina Festin Tech Times
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By programming soft materials according to design specifications, MIT CSAIL researchers have managed to create a shock-absorbent 3D-printed robot with soft skins. The technology may be used in a range of applications, from commercial to military. Pictured is a comparison of cube robots unequipped with shock-absorbing padding (left) and those outfitted with 3D printed protection (right).  ( MIT News )

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be presenting a new way of 3D-printing flexible materials that can buffer a robot during a fall or keep it stable.

These materials, in turn, make the robots' actions more accurate and enhance their sturdiness, whether they are functioning as shoes, phones, helmets and drones, among other things.

Robots are used in various important fields these days, from military and engineering assignments such as surveying lands, to factory duties and even private use.

Because of their fragility, robotic components tend to be easily damaged when dropped, smashed, or crashed; they normally lack enough layers of padding or protection.

For this reason, scientists and engineers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory hope to improve the future of robotics through their 3D-printed robots with soft skins.

By developing the "programmable viscoelastic material" (PVM), the team gives users the capability of digitally programming each part of the 3D-printed object and shaping it to specific levels of elasticity or stiffness.

The scientists, for example, 3D-printed and equipped a cube robot with a shockproof skin that could make use of only 1/250 of the total energy it transfers to the floor.

"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," says MIT CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, who oversees the team. "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."

Putting Dampers As Restraints

Dampers are widely used for different purposes, such as when safeguarding radio towers from storms, increasing tire traction on the road, or even simply controlling keys on a piano.

Because plastics and rubbers are viscoelastic materials and possess both liquid and solid properties, they are commonly used as dampers. But while viscoelastics are cheap, easily available, and compact, they are also only sold at certain damping levels and sizes. Customizing them is time-consuming.

The MIT CSAIL team later realized that, to go beyond this limitation, 3D-printing had to be the best solution since it would enable them to create materials to match the constraints of the design.

This isn't the only possible application for the 3D-printed robot with soft shock-absorbent skin. The team suggests that the technology can also be used in various human-related activities that require shock absorption and flexibility, features that are much needed in helmets, coats, and all-terrain shoes.

The presentation is set for the first week of October and is made possible through the support of the National Science Foundation.

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