As a child, you remember having played with those little rubber “poppers,” the jumping toys. You’d flip the suction cup at the base inside out, wait what felt like an eternity, and finally the rubber would snap back in place, launching the toy into the air. Using a 3D printer, researchers at Harvard and UCSD have created something similar – only instead of a child’s toy, it’s a major advancement in the field of robotics.
Most robots today are either rigid or soft, and each have their advantages. Traditional rigid robots are powerful and fast, but delicate. Soft robots are more durable, but are slower and wind up with many of the same issues as rigid robots, since they typically require rigid internal components.
The little bouncing bot marries the two while removing most of the weaknesses. Created in a single 3D print job, the hard internal control components are shielded by a semi-soft material, which is then swathed in a soft rubber that makes up the robot’s body. This eliminates any abrupt transitions from rigid materials to soft ones, lessening the chances of failure at impact.
The robot, which looks something like a flying saucer, jumps by first inflating the legs necessary to point it in its desired direction. Then butane and oxygen combine in a small central ignition chamber, propelling the robot into the air. It’s powerful, able to jump six times its body height – imagine LeBron James being able to jump nearly 20 feet into the air.
It’s a significant leap in soft robotics, which are sought after for their durability, but often disappoint. With no joints or sliding parts, a jumping bot like this one could have real field applicability, since it’s not vulnerable to debris or fractures.