WPI is researching robots for search and rescue missions that are 3D printed.

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Grants are often incredibly specific, making them seem astoundingly accurate. A case in point is Markus Nemitz, a researcher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), who has been awarded $599,815 to create low-cost search and rescue robots. These robots are designed to be capable of swimming, climbing, and navigating tight spaces. To test their effectiveness, they will be deployed in a scale model of the Thai cave where 12 students were famously trapped in 2018. This funding presents two thoughts: 1. I am tempted to drop everything and join Markus on his journey. 2. I sincerely hope that Markus has access to a budget greater than $600,000. Nemitz provided more details about the project, stating, “Disasters often require unique and specialized responses, as was evident during the Tham Luang cave crisis. There is great potential in the development of small robots that are quickly created from soft, flexible materials. These robots can greatly assist in rescue efforts by exploring areas that pose potential risks to humans or are otherwise inaccessible, such as earthquake debris, flooded regions, and even nuclear accident sites. Robots can access places that are beyond the reach of humans. Equipped with sensors like microphones and cameras, these robots will enhance the capabilities of rescuers, particularly during natural disasters. To ensure a dynamic and swift response to emergencies, it is vital that we continually innovate and develop new technologies. Robotics is at the forefront of this development.” The funding for this project comes from a CAREER award by the National Science Foundation, aimed at encouraging young researchers. The robots will be 3D printed, embracing the emerging field of soft robotics. In this case, the 3D printed robots will possess “mechanical intelligence, embedded fluidic circuits, and flexible electronics,” which will enable them to carry out demanding missions. By reading between the lines of the grant, it is evident that the objective extends beyond simple rescue operations. In fact, Nemitz’s previous work was partially sponsored by the Army. A headline such as “Adorable, Soft Cave Rescue Robot” is more attractive than “3D-Printed Killer SEAL Robots Targeting America’s Enemies.” The goal is to leverage the inherent resilience and adaptability of soft robotics, creating something more akin to a flexible jellyfish than a clunky machine that relies on numerous sensors. These robots could utilize fluidic logic to activate actuators, responding naturally to gravity and obstacles. By using 3D printed channels, gates, and valves, complex and powerful arrangements can be made. This approach takes inspiration from previous projects such as Octobot from Harvard’s Wyss lab and Hod Lipson’s research. Markus’s robots will also include “multi-stable flexing beam structures with integrated linear actuators and fluidic tubing.” While microfluidics could be considered the “brain” of these robots, they will also be equipped with flexible electronics. It’s slightly disappointing that microfluidics won’t handle all aspects, but the team is working to minimize the use of electronics. Additionally, Markus plans to demonstrate his technology to high school students and even teach a course on 3D printable robotics. In 2017, I wrote an article on 3D printed soft robotics, concluding that most soft robots were conceptually incredible but lacked real-world practicality. Since then, we have seen some progress, but not much else. Hopefully, with initiatives like the one at WPI, we will finally witness the sector breaking out of the lab. Stay updated on all the latest news from the 3D printing industry and receive information and offers from third-party vendors.

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