NASA is using 3D printing to develop soft robots for space exploration

A pair of researchers at NASA are using 3D printing to help bring soft robotics to space.

Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick, interns at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, are investigating the viability of using soft robotics for space exploration and assembly. Soft robots are constructed from highly flexible materials, allowing for new robot movements similar to living organisms that traditional robots can’t replicate, therefore presenting new possible applications for robots in space.

Although in its early stages, 3D printing has played a key role in the research, with the two interns using the technology to develop the soft robotic actuator, which is key for animating and controlling a robot’s moving parts. “When you actuate the soft robot, it changes how you use the material properties,” explained Fitzpatrick.

“A piece of rubber going from flat to the shape of a finger, it changes the material into something else.” 

A soft robot developed by Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick using their actuators from 3D printed silicone molds. Video via NASA.
A soft robot developed by Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick using their actuators from 3D printed silicone molds. Video via NASA.

3D printing enables life-like movements of soft robot actuator

Sullivan and Fitzpatrick selected 3D printing to develop the actuator in order to understand and explore how the integral soft robotic components can be built and used in space. Currently, their process revolves around 3D printing an actuator mold, then pouring in silicone, a flexible substance, in order to create the soft robotic actuator.

Using 3D printing, the actuator features a design utilizing chambers (or air bladders) with tubes within them, which allows control of the soft robot’s movements. The chambers expand and compress depending on the level of air within them; by using the tubes, the NASA researchers can adjust the amount of air in the chamber of the soft robotic actuator, allowing the robot to flex and relax, mimicking human muscles.

Infinite potential for soft robots in space

Both the research interns are new to the field of soft robotics, but have worked with NASA before. They were invited by NASA to work on the intern project as the organization is keen on investigating the viability of soft robots in space. As such, Sullivan and Fitzpatrick are “starting at ground zero” for investigating how soft robotics can be used in space assembly and exploration, and have therefore devised a series of experiments to test, gather data and develop their actuator designs.

Their experiments are based on testing four properties of soft robotic actuators, and with the results, the NASA interns plan on determining the potential uses and limitations of soft robotics in space exploration and assembly. The four properties consists of mobility, joining, leveling, and strengthening: “We are trying to see the basic capabilities of soft robots through these four properties,” commented Sullivan. “That way when someone down the road says maybe soft robotics is useful in a different application they can look at our work as a baseline.”

Mobility tests will focus on how the soft robotic actuator is able to move in the conditions of outer-space. The second property, joining, will focus on understanding how soft robots could interlock and link together, which could have various uses, like producing a large temporary shelter. Leveling indicates the ability of the actuators to create or adjust a desired surface, and lastly, strengthening will look at building the robustness of a material through pressurizing by using the air bladders in the soft robotic actuator. Fitzpatrick hopes, with these tests, they can develop soft robots to be used in space where they can help keep astronauts safe and productive. Sullivan added:

“We see these four things as the crux of the problem. Once we can accomplish those in individual unit tests, we would like to figure out ways to combine them, so maybe we combine mobility and joining.”

The intern project at NASA was initially developed by Computer Engineer and Principal Investigator James Neillan, along with Co-Principal Investigator Matt Mahlin. Experts will visit Langley to provide feedback on Fitzpatrick’s and Sullivan’s designs and research so far, with the project then set to continue through the summer.

Soft robots of the future

With the NASA interns using 3D printing to investigate the potential of soft robotics in space, the field of 3D printing and soft robotics continues to develop. Previously, North Carolina State University (NCSU) had conducted early-stage experiments to develop a new class of 3D printed smart material that is magnetically-reactive and mesh-like by design. The material has a significant potential for use with smart robotics: “This new class of magnetoactive actuators enabled by this 3D printing technique enables […] potential applications spanning active tissue scaffolds for cell cultures and various types of soft robots mimicking creatures that live on the surface of water,” commented NCSU Professor Orlin Velev.

Other developments in the field include a moving 3D printed gel from Rutgers University–New Brunswick that demonstrates the lifelike possibilities of soft robotics, and a robot with 3D printed soft-robotic legs at UC San Diego’s Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab that allows it to walk over uneven surfaces.

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Featured image shows a soft robot developed by Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick using their actuators from 3D printed silicone molds. Video via NASA.