Robots of the future will be smaller, smarter, and likely softer as well.
Scientists are ditching the hard exteriors of robots to make them more versatile, and in one of the latest advancements in soft robotics, researchers at the Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing (BAM) Laboratory at the University of Maryland have 3D printed a robotic hand that was able to pass the first level of Super Mario Bros. in less than 90 seconds.
The team led by assistant professor Ryan Sochol designed integrated fluidic circuits that could be controlled by applying a single control water pressure. For instance, to move the first finger, low pressure was applied. To move the second, moderate pressure was used, whereas high pressure was needed to move the third finger. The researchers were able to program the robotic hand and teach it when to walk and when to jump during gameplay by adjusting the pressure levels.
The researchers tested the accuracy of their design on a Nintendo system by playing Super Mario Bros. The gameplay leaves little margin for mistakes, making it a true challenge. But it isn't the only difficulty. Soft robot research is processing slowly globally due to the large amount of physical effort required to construct them. To overcome this obstacle, Sochol's team made use of the university's 3D printing capabilities.
Using "PolyJet 3D printing", which allows simultaneous printing to be carried out using different materials, the team was able to print various components of the soft robots and put them together within a day.
During the gameplay, they were able to make Mario walk by applying a low pressure, causing only the first finger to press the Nintendo controller. A high pressure would get Mario jumping. The robotic hand, directed by a pre-programmed software that cycled between off, low, medium, and high pressures, was able to push the buttons on the controller and successfully complete the first level of Super Mario Bros. in less than 90 seconds.
As the next step, the team wants to use their research to design custom prosthetics and rehabilitation devices. For the benefit of researchers at large, the team has also shared the design publicly, encouraging others to access it and modify it for their own projects.
In a press release, Sochol stated, "It is our hope that this open-source 3D printing strategy will broaden accessibility, dissemination, reproducibility, and adoption of soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits and, in turn, accelerate advancement in the field."