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October 4, 2016

MIT’s new robots are safer, tougher, and more precise

This week, MIT researchers are presenting a new technique for 3-D printing soft materials that makes robots less dangerous and more accurate.

The result is expected to make drones, mobile devices, and protective equipment more durable.

Using a their “programmable viscoelastic material” (PVM) technique, MIT researchers can manipulate just about every part of a 3D-printed object to a precise amountt of rigidity and elasticity, based on need.

For instance, after 3-D printing a cube-shaped robot that travels around by bouncing, the scientists equipped it with shock-absorbing “skins” designed to use only 1/250 the quantity of energy it sends to the ground.

“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,” Daniela Rus, a project team member from MIT’s  Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), said in a news release. “These materials allow us to 3-D print robots with visco-elastic properties that can be inputted by the user at print-time as part of the fabrication process.”

Creating Better Drones and Robots

The skins also permit the robot to land virtually four times more accurately, indicating that comparable shock absorbers might be used to help lengthen the lifespan of airborne drones.

The most prevalent damper materials are “viscoelastics” like rubber that have both solid and liquid traits. Viscoelastics are inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to find, but are commonly only available in particular sizes and at particular damping amounts due to how time-consuming it is to modify them.

By being capable of extruding materials with various mechanical qualities into a design, 3-D printing allowed the MIT team to “program” material to their precise needs for every a part of an object.

“By combining multiple materials to achieve properties that are outside the range of the base material, this work pushes the envelope of what’s possible to print,” said team member Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Columbia University. “On top of that, being able to do this in a single print-job raises the bar for additive manufacturing.”

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Image credit: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL