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3D Printed Microbots

Even though insects are amazing creatures and can perform some incredible feats of movement and strength, humans give them quite a hard time. Rather than being under microscopes, they would more likely to be found under flyswatters. However, this reality for insects is slowly changing as researchers in the field of robotics are building the tiniest of robots that mimic the unusual and clever movements of these little insects. These microscopic robots could potentially change our lives in the future. Funny right?

Amazing things are happening in the world of rapid prototyping and 3D printing. Industries like medicine, aerospace and architecture are benefitting hugely from 3D printing technology, and the world of construction and robotics are following suit! In robotics, a recent breakthrough has been brought to you by a research team from the University of Maryland, who have successfully built tiny navigating robots. These 3D printed quadruped robots can navigate easily through rough, uneven terrain. Measuring just 20 millimeters in length and weighing under two grams, these little 3D printed robots can actually perform different paced movements such as waddling, pronking, trotting and bounding.

Professor Sarah Bergbreiter and Ryan St. Pierre from the University of Maryland have been occupied in the process of making their very own sub-2 g robot insects with a 3D printer. The duo presented a paper last month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Stockhold, Sweden, on the gait characteristics of these miniscule robots. The paper was published in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, in which the researchers explain how the experiments on the tiny robots gait was done, in order to observe which would be the most effective to traverse both normal and rougher terrain.

The experts from Maryland printed each robot using a 3D printer in one go. After that, the support materials were removed and a 2 millimeter neodymium cube magnet was embedded into each of the four hips of the robots. A larger magnet was rotated nearby so that the researchers could initiate movement in the robots. This enabled any required adjustment in the orientation of dipole in each of the hip magnets, so that the robots’ gait could be altered as pleased.

In spite of their miniscule, insect like appearance and size, these tiny robots are in fact, as dissimilar to actual insects as can be. The robots were originally built making them similar in appearance by the researchers. For this, they were made to have six legs, just like robots made by researchers at UC Berkeley in 2009, which were the Robotic Autonomous Crawling Hexapod (RoACH) robots. Bergbreiter and St. Pierre however discovered that the six legs constantly get locked together. As a solution to this problem, a pair of legs was removed, hence making these miniscule robots quadrupeds, unlike their hexapod friends from UC Berkeley. After the robot design was finalized, it was time for the researchers to ask the important question- what kind of movement would be best suited for these tiny robots. Would these little 3D printed robots rather walk, drive or skip?

By way of their intricate setup of the magnetic actuator, Bergbreiter and St. Pierre were capable of testing out various animalistic gaits to find out the answer. Each robot measuring 20 mm x 5.6 mm was fitted with four wheel-leg hybrids called ‘whegs’ were configured to waddle, trot and bound in both normal and rough terrain. Another interesting move was the pronk- which is a straight legged leap usually seen in springboks. While the robots imitated animal gaits, the researchers measured the success of the robots movement for each case.

After much research and movement, the successful gait turned out to be pronking or stotting. A pronking gait in the 3D printed bug robots were actuated at 10 Hz, due to which they traversed at an average highest speed of 78 mm/s. This is equal to four times their body lengths per second. Therefore, pronking was found to be the fastest pace over mildly rough and normal terrain. Other gaits were slightly better in performance in very rough terrains.

St. Pierre explained that where there is more amount of pitching of the body as it moves, more dynamic gaits happened to be more effective in crossing rough terrain. However, they were also slower in normal terrain. Even more surprising was the fact that there were actually certain phases of flight in certain gaits, such as the successful pronk. These flight phases helped this gait perform better over the others on flat surfaces.

This study is only the beginning according to the hopeful researchers. The simplicity of the robots’ design makes it easier to bring changes to the robot’s body shape, legs and not to mention their gait. These factors can have radical effect on the movement of these tiny robot insects. The best part is that the researchers can now 3D print an entire swarm of tiny robots at the same time using a 3D printer that works on several materials. The robots can also be shrunk down to even tinier sizes. St. Pierre opines that making robots as small as can be is always an interesting challenge. Currently, the researcher stated that he is working on a robot just 2.5 millimeters long, which are smaller than the ones presented at ICRA. These smaller robots have the advantage of going places that larger ones cannot. Having robots made in different sizes increases their utility.

These amazing 3D printed robots can inspire researchers to build micro robots for future generations, bringing in amazing changes in the way we perceive and see robotics.




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