New 3D-printed robot can walk on sand and rocks

A team from the University of California San Diego has developed the first soft robot that can walk on rough surfaces like pebble-covered ground. The 3D-printed, four-legged robot can also climb over obstacles and could assist humans in situations like search-and-rescue missions. Credit: UC San Diego Jacob's School of Engineering/David Ballot

NEW YORK — A robot can now navigate rough terrain, marching happily over rocks and sand.

A team from the University of California San Diego has developed the first soft robot that can walk on rough surfaces like pebble-covered ground. The 3D-printed, four-legged robot can also climb over obstacles and could assist humans in situations like search-and-rescue missions.

The robot will be presented at a conference in Singapore on May 29.

To build the robot, researchers used a high-end printer that prints soft and rigid materials together. The method makes it possible for the robot to make complicated motions and have more complex shapes for its legs.

It was tested on large rocks, inclined surfaces and sand. The robot can move forward, backward, sideways and rotate in place — and transition from walking to crawling into a confined space, similar to a cat wiggling into a small space.

Traditional rigid robots perform well in controlled terrain, such as on a concrete floor, but they typically have trouble moving around outside or on uneven ground. But the team’s new robot has soft legs, allowing it to adapt more easily to unstructured terrain, according to the researchers.

Other soft robots have been able to shuffle or crawl on the ground, but they cannot lift their legs or walk, said team leader Michael Tolley, who is also a mechanical engineering professor at UC San Diego.

By combining soft and rigid materials, the robot is not only faster and more agile, but it’s also safer and could work side-by-side with humans in rescue missions.

“We want them to be able to navigate through a collapsed building, squeeze through different openings or walk through a more natural, rough-terrain kind of environment,” Tolley told CNNTech.

“This particular robot we see as a step in that direction,” he said.