3-D–printed body helps jumping robot land on its feet

Mix of soft and rigid plastics lets bot bounce, keep parts in place

jumping robot

BOUNCING BOT A 3-D–printed body made from a combination of rubbery and rigid plastics lets a jumping robot push off the ground while keeping mechanical bits secure. 

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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A soft-and-stiff body puts a spring in a new jumping robot’s step.

The body, made from a rubbery-to-rigid gradient of plastic, helps the bot bounce high and stick its landings, while offering mechanical bits a supportive base, researchers report in the July 10 Science.  

Explosions sparked inside the bot force its stretchy belly to balloon downward, launching it off the ground. The soft belly transitions to a stiff top that anchors the bot’s guts in place. An earlier version of the robot was mostly rubbery (SN:11/1/14, p.11), so parts sometimes jiggled loose during jumps, says study coauthor Michael Tolley, a mechanical engineer at the University of California, San Diego. That bot also tended to land on its head.

So Tolley and colleagues used a 3-D printer to build a bot with a completely new design and shape.

It looks something like a deflated basketball, Tolley says, with one half folded inside the other. Electronic parts fasten to a stiff, upside-down outer bowl, which rests atop a soft inner membrane. Three egg-shaped legs form a squat tripod, and a domed lattice guards fragile parts.

The new design lets the dinner plate–sized bot land upright and leap higher than the previous version — up to 0.76 meters, about the height of a dining room table.

Tolley thinks a jumping robot could one day aid search-and-rescue missions, where vaulting over debris might be faster than trekking through it.

BLAST OFF  A butane-fueled explosion sparked inside this soft robot launches it skyward. A rubbery plastic belly balloons out, letting the bot shove off the ground. Stiffer plastic up top holds the bot’s delicate parts in place.

Credit: Video by Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Produced by Ashley Yeager

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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