The National Interest published an article discussing how in the near future, 3D-printed squid drones could be stealthily slithering around urban battlespaces.
Seeking to overcome the limitations of existing robots and their clumsy movements, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) has turned to nature for inspiration.
According to Dr. Ed Habtour, an ARL specialist in nonlinear structural dynamics, the army’s current robots are built using rigid mechanical and electrical elements resulting in stiff-jointed, inflexible movement. As a consequence, these robots perform poorly in confined urban environments where covert maneuvers are critical.
“Successful stealthy maneuvering requires high structural flexibility and distributive control to sneak into confined or restricted spaces,” Dr. Habtour explained.
So researchers from the ARL teamed up with the University of Minnesota (UMN) to examine how to make drones emulate the movements of invertebrates like squid and worms.
But to move like an invertebrate, researchers first had to build flexible actuators, the device that converts electrical energy into physical motion for robots. Current actuators are largely made from stiff materials and move either rotationally or linearly.
“In the initial phase of the project, our team began by investigating new methods for emulating the locomotion of invertebrates, which provided fundamental insights into the machineries of their soft distributed actuation circuitries that allow for high bending motions without skeletal support,” said Professor Michael McAlpine, who studies 3D-printing materials and devices at UMN.
Soft robotics is a nascent field and one of its biggest challenges is the development of soft actuators, but the joint ARL and UMN project made a major breakthrough. Using flexible 3D-printed materials, researchers created prototype actuators with three times greater movement than existing versions.
The prototype featured 3D-printed actuation circuits encased in soft, stretchable material that can bend in any direction when electricity is applied.
The project is still in its early stages, but researchers hope to eventually make these soft robots readily available downrange. The material does not require any additional heating, assembly, or postprocessing, so soldiers can use them in printable robots with little training. Continue reading about the Army’s new drone.