Watch this 3D-printed robot walk on sand

This is the first soft robot that can walk on rough surfaces.

Lately, there has been lots of buzz about collaborative robots, or co-bots, which are robots designed to work alongside humans.

Before we let robots out of their cages, they have to become safer than their metal predecessors. If robots are made of softer materials, it won't be a big deal if they accidentally bump into someone or something. Then again, robots still have to be at least somewhat rigid in order to be effective for most applications. Now, engineers at the University of California San Diego have used a 3D printer to make a robot from a mix of both hard and soft materials.

Dylan Trotman photo

Dylan Trotman and his colleagues designed a soft robot that can walk on sand and rocks (Photo: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering / David Baillot)

Conventional rigid robots perform well in places like warehouses that have smooth concrete floors, but they have trouble moving around outside on uneven ground. Just like the animals that expertly run across natural surfaces, some of the robot's body parts are hard and others are soft.

"In nature, complexity has a very low cost," said researcher Michael Tolley in a press announcement. "Using new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, we're trying to translate this to robotics."

The robot has a rigid body, but its rubbery legs are made of several actuators that are chambers that can be inflated to control movements. This combination makes it is strong and adaptable enough to walk across rocks and sand. As a bonus, 3D printing is cheaper and faster than traditional manufacturing methods (such as molds), which makes it easy for engineers to experiment and create custom designs.

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A high-end 3D printer made it possible for UC San Diego engineers to design complex shapes for the robot's legs. (Photo: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering / David Baillot)

The robot could be used as a scout to capture sensor readings or capture images from potentially dangerous locations. Some soft robots have mastered crawling, but this four-legged robot can lift its legs so it can climb over obstacles and walk on rough terrain. It can also transition to crawling if it needs to squeeze into a small space, which could come in handy for search and rescue missions or scientific exploration of remote regions of Earth or eventually, other planets.

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