JUN 29, 2022 10:00 AM PDT

All-in-one 3D printing method used to make robot materials in a single step

Humanity is devoted to constructing its own demise because we’re absolutely obsessed with building robots, and there’s no sign of slowing down anytime soon. It doesn’t even matter the type of robot, if we want to build it, it gets built. With every robot we build, whether it’s a size of an ant or as large as a Gundam, we’re slowly chipping away until we all get stuck in pods and plugged into the Matrix for the rest of eternity. But for now, we’ll allow ourselves to think we’re in control and that robots will be doing our bidding for the rest of eternity.

How would you like to build your very own robot in one single step? Well, based on a recent study published in Science, you can! Using a new design strategy and 3D printing technique, a team of UCLA engineers and their colleagues can do just that. Yep, you read that right, folks. We’re researching how to build robots faster, and it seems we’re just that eager to get thrown in the sleeping pods that much sooner.

This marvelous breakthrough in robot technology allowed the entire mechanical and electronic systems needed to operate a robot to be manufactured all at once. This new type of 3D printing process uses active materials with multiple functions (also known as metamaterials). Once 3D printed, a "meta-bot" will be capable of propulsion, movement, sensing and decision-making. It seems like we're making Autobots right here on Earth.

The printed metamaterials consists of multiple components, to include an internal network of sensory, moving and structural elements, and they can move by themselves following programmed commands. Since the internal network of moving and sensing is already in place, a small battery to power the robot is the only external component required. This gives new meaning to the phrase, "Batteries not included." 

"We envision that this design and printing methodology of smart robotic materials will help realize a class of autonomous materials that could replace the current complex assembly process for making a robot," said the study's principal investigator Xiaoyu (Rayne) Zheng, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. "With complex motions, multiple modes of sensing and programmable decision-making abilities all tightly integrated, it's similar to a biological system with the nerves, bones and tendons working in tandem to execute controlled motions."

Reagrdless of their size, most robots are typically built using a series of complex manufacturing steps that integrate the limbs, electronic and active components. Unfortunately, this process often results in heavier weights, bulkier volumes and reduced force output compared to robots that could be built using this new all-in-one method.

The key in the UCLA-led, all-in-one method is the design and printing of piezoelectric metamaterials, which are a class of intricate lattice materials that can change shape and move in response to an electric field or create electrical charge as a result of physical forces.

Using the technique, the team built and demonstrated three "meta-bots" with different capabilities. One robot can escape in response to a contact impact, one robot could walk over rough terrain and even make small jumps, and the third navigate around S-shaped corners and randomly placed obstacles.

What next steps will we take to ensure our demise? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Science

MS in Geological Sciences
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
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