Making soft robots could soon be fairly straightforward-at least if you have a handy 3D printer. Researchers at UC San Diego have invented a way to cheaply, easily and without using expensive equipment for 3D-printing insect-like flexible robots. The trick was to print “flexo-skeletons,” or 3D-printed rigid materials onto flat, thin sheets of polycarbonate. Unlike insects, there are features that only improve stiffness in specific areas — a contrast to traditional soft robots that often have soft features that are approached to solids.
Every part of the flexo-skeleton takes about 10 minutes to print, and a fully assembled bot should be ready in less than two hours. An individual component costs less than $1-the most expensive parts are likely to be the processing power, sensors and batteries.
This will initially help researchers quickly and easily build robots, but the ultimate goal is to mass-produce robots without human involvement. This could result in robot swarms capable of performing tasks at least as well as large monolithic machines, but with lower costs and lower risk.