The future is here and it’s 3D
AN INSECT made of black plastic and as big as my hand scuttles across the tabletop, scraping its feet along the surface. Apart from three motors and some short lengths of wire, every piece of the robot emerged from a 3D printer. It is just one of the robots to crawl, fly and roll out of printers in homes and labs around the world.
This insectbot is the handiwork of Minnesota-based hobbyist Karl Rutz who printed it at home on a Makerbot printer – which can cost as little as $1300. It may look like a fun toy at this point, but researchers, like Miles Pekala of the Maryland-based robotics firm Motile Robotics, say that printable robots are accelerating robotics research. “We can revise things so quickly that we can actually keep up with our ideas,” he says.
At the annual Army Science Conference in Orlando, Florida, last November, Pekala showed off a prototype “tentacle manipulator” – a three-pronged, hand-like grabber with flexible five-jointed fingers, made from pieces printed in his lab.
The design was revised 10 times in three months, something that would be impossible had the researchers not been able to print new pieces in the lab. Pekala is not alone, last year Hod Lipson of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (see Insight, page 20) put a small flapping-wing robot through its paces, again made almost entirely of 3D printed parts.
Pekala and colleague Asha Hall are now working on printing flapping wings of their own, modelled on the intricate vein-structure of actual flying insects, such as hawk moths (see picture). Apart from the circuitry and actuators required to drive the wings, the robot is entirely printed from plastic. It’s not just a prototype. Hall says the printed bug should be strong enough to carry sensors in the battlefield.
Pekala and Hall’s robots still require off-the-shelf motors and electrical components. Not for long, says Juan Gonzalez-Gomez, a visiting professor at the Robotics Lab at the Carlos III University of Madrid, Spain. He believes even these complex parts may soon be printable. He points to a website called Thingiverse where hobbyists and researchers have uploaded designs for printable motors, ball-bearings, grippers, even transistors – all necessary if a robot is to be truly 100 per cent printable.
“This is only the beginning. I am absolutely sure that a complete robot can be printed. It is only a matter of time,” Gonzalez-Gomez says. Earlier this year he designed a simple printable wheeled robot, Miniskybot, to encourage researchers and students to explore different printable designs. He says the ease and speed of printing new robot hardware means that researchers don’t have to settle for writing new software routines for old robots – they can just as easily make new ones. “Plastic is cheap,” says Rutz. “So if you have a crazy idea for your robot you don’t have to fret about wasting time and money getting a custom part built. You can just try it and find out if it’s crazy or brilliant.”
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