New 3-D printing technique can make autonomous robots in a single step

Building a robot is difficult. It’s even harder to build one that can sense its surroundings and learn to move around on its own.

But UCLA engineers took on an even bigger challenge. Not only did they create autonomous robots, they 3D printed them in a single step.

Each robot is about the size of a fingertip. Their bodies resemble a bamboo mat folded in the shape of an N, and they glide around at speeds of up to 25 feet per minute.

What made this feat possible was the invention of a novel all-in-one material that can bend, twist, flex, and stretch.

“Traditional robots that you see today rely on several different components,” said Rayne Zheng, mechanical engineer and leader of the project. The robot’s body, its moving parts, and its electronics must be built separately and then assembled. “With 3D printed materials that can be robotized, we don’t need any of that.”

The advance, detailed last month in the journal Science, paves the way for inventions ranging from nimble rescue robots that can navigate tight spaces to responsive prosthetics with fewer parts to break.

“Often 3-D printing is used as a novelty to generate hype… but that’s not the case here,” said Ryan Sochol, a robotics engineer at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study.

Robert MacCurdy, who designs automated robots at the University of Colorado Boulder, called the UCLA work “a true innovation in 3-D printing technology.” He said the printing of a mobile, shape-shifting material with built-in electronic components and remote sensing capabilities has never been achieved before and it foreshadows “the production of robots in the future.”

Zheng and his colleagues started the project three years ago to see if they could use 3D printing to build a material that can sense its surroundings — for example, to measure the ambient temperature and determine if it’s hit or crushed became .

Once they achieved that goal, they added another. “We started thinking why not move it?” said Zheng.

And they still wanted to do everything in one step.

Ordinary 3D printers work like a machine that puts the icing on a cake. They build up thin layers of plastic, metal, glass or other materials to create an endless list of products such as jewelry, tools, prosthetics and even pizza. But you can only print one component at a time.

To print an entire robot at once, Zheng and his colleagues needed a versatile material. So they created one out of silicon carbide, which supports the structure of the robots; Copper and gold electrodes that carry electricity; and piezoelectric ceramics, which change shape in response to an electric field.

Each part contributes to a whole new “metamaterial” that can bend and bend, stretch and squeeze, and twist and turn, said Huachen Cui, a postdoctoral fellow in Zheng’s lab who led its development. And the metamaterial can be 3D printed in one go.

The new material required a custom 3D printer, so the team built one to take the place of an office desk. How it works is similar to flash freezing a design in a glass of water and draining the rest, leaving an intricate ice sculpture. But instead of water, the printer alternates between barrels of the three ingredients, then uses ultraviolet light to solidify each layer of the metamaterial lattice as the robot takes shape.

A close-up of the 3D printed grid that forms the base of the robots.

A close-up of the 3D printed grid that forms the base of the robots. The intricate elements are designed to bend, flex, twist, rotate, expand or contract at high speeds.

(Rayne Research Group/UCLA)

The result is basically like a muscle. “It has integrated everything from structural components, sensor components to motion and electronic control,” Zheng said.

In other words, MacCurdy said, it’s a truly functional object: “When it comes out of the 3-D printer, it doesn’t require any additional assembly.”

Cui put a robot through its paces by placing it on a table between two pipes. A set of cables connected the robot to a power source. When the power was turned on, the robot burst into life with an uncharacteristic bright green flash accompanied by plumes of smoke. But soon it was moving with the low hum of an electric razor.

The three parts of his N-shaped body form a muscle that flexes faster than the eye can tell, propelling him forward with ease. It can even jump over tiny hurdles about 1 millimeter in height.

The design was inspired by nature.

“I wanted to make it agile and very fast — the first thing that came to my mind was a leopard,” said Cui, the study’s lead author. “You just have to hit the ground and move forward. That’s it.”

Like bats, the robots rely on ultrasound to sense their surroundings. Instead of echolocation, however, the machines use a 3-D printed remote sensor that bounces radar pulses in different directions. The way they bounce back alerts the robot to obstacles in its path so it can adjust accordingly.

The machines, which are so small they fit on a penny, can carry more than 13 times their own weight. When Cui dropped a bolt into a basket attached to the top of the robot, it jerked and began to move faster. The impact, designed to mimic falling debris, was the cue for a quick escape, he said.

Zheng said making the robots bigger isn’t difficult – all they need is a bigger 3D printer. The real challenge is to make the robots smaller and waterworthy.

That inspires Sochol.

“I think biomedical applications, especially drug delivery, are applications where this could really have legitimate utility,” he said. He imagined a scenario in which a tiny robot carries a dose of medicine to a specific location in a blood vessel. Once in position, doctors could “hit it with an electric field” to get it to release its payload.

Zheng’s lab is already equipped with a small tank on the floor to test a future generation of water robots. If the original version was inspired by a leopard, the new ones are designed to mimic the swimming and crawling abilities of shrimp. New 3-D printing technique can make autonomous robots in a single step

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