Researchers develop autonomous robot that 3D prints its own body

Researchers from Italy’s Fondazione Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia and the University of Montpellier in France have developed an autonomous snake-like robot that can continuously 3D print its own body to grow longer.

As the robot’s head rotates, it pulls PLA filament up its body from a spool at its base. This material is then extruded through a heated nozzle in its head, 3D printing additional coiled layers to the robot’s tubular body.   

Dubbed the FiloBot, this novel robot draws inspiration from climbing plants like vines, and uses sensors to determine the direction in which it grows. 

For instance, the robot can be set to 3D print in the direction of a light source, ensuring that it is always growing away from the ground. Other external stimuli, such as gravity and shade, can also be used to determine the direction of growth. 

The researchers believe that this 3D printing robot holds potential in applications such as search and rescue operations, environmental monitoring, exploration, interacting with unstructured environments, and autonomous construction of complex infrastructure.  

The scientists have published their FiloBot findings in the Journal Science Robotics

The FiloBot. Photo via Science Robotics.
The FiloBot. Photo via Science Robotics.

FiloBot: an autonomous self-3D printing robot   

The temperature, orientation, and rate at which the FinoBot is 3D printed is not uniform, and is constantly influenced by external factors. Besides an extruder, the robot’s conical-shaped head features light sensors, a gyroscope, and other electrical devices. 

These devices perceive gravity and the direction of blue, red, and far-red light, and direct the 3D printing process in response to these stimuli. This enables the FiloBot to autonomously navigate its environment without the need for preprogrammed movements or path planning.    

What’s more, the FiloBot has been designed to locate and grow towards support structures. Once located, the robot climbs and traverses these support structures by twining, or winding, around them. 

The FiloBot can also adaptively fine-tune the mechanical properties of its body in response to the environment and its tasks. This allows the robot to more efficiently manage its energy consumption during the 3D printing process. 

For instance, when growing on a support structure like a tree trunk, the FiloBot will automatically use less energy to 3D print a lighter body. However, when encountering an open space, the robot will 3D print a stronger body to sustain itself while in suspension. The FiloBot will also trigger faster growth when twining and moving along a support structure.   

According to the researchers, the FiloBot’s growth mechanism offers notable advantages over more conventional flying, wheeled, or legged robots. 

Growing robots are capable of navigating both above and below ground, and can penetrate dense substances such as soil. Moreover, the stem-like body of the FiloBot can maneuver through different types of terrain, and negotiate unpredictable obstacles. Energy supply problems are negligible as the snake-like robot is constantly tethered to an energy source.     

“Implementing climbing plant-inspired features allows the robot to minimize construction costs in terms of energy and material and maximizes simplicity for sensing and computing strategies,” the scientists explain in their research paper. “Our design enabled our climbing plant–inspired robot to carry out autonomous 3D navigation in real-world scenarios.”

These advantages make the FiloBot well suited to search and rescue missions, as well as other applications requiring robots to navigate unpredictable environments. 

Emanuele Del Dottore, a roboticist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa and lead author of the study, claims that the robot’s slow average growth rate of around seven millimeters per minute is an advantage in such applications. For instance, this may prevent unstable structures from being disturbed or further damaged during 3D printing. 

“By equipping autonomous systems with transportable additive manufacturing techniques merged with bioinspired behavioral strategies, future robots can navigate unstructured and dynamic environments and even be capable of self-building infrastructure,” added Del Dottore. 

Schematic representation of the growing robot regions, their functionalities, and growth responses. Image via Science Robotics
Schematic representation of the growing robot regions, their functionalities, and growth responses. Image via Science Robotics

3D printing robots for challenging environments 

3D printing has often been leveraged to develop robots capable of traversing challenging environments. Last year, it was announced that Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researcher Markus Nemitz had received $599,815 to develop a new class of low-cost, 3D printed soft robots optimized for search and rescue operations. 

Funded as part of a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, Nemitz’s research focuses on the development of small and flexible robots with integrated fluidic circuits that can be rapidly produced and customized for specific disaster conditions. These robots can be equipped with sensors such as microphones and cameras to enhance the capabilities of rescuers.   

“There lies immense potential in the development of small robots that are quickly fabricated from soft, flexible materials. These robots can significantly aid rescue efforts by exploring areas that pose potential hazards to humans or are otherwise inaccessible, including earthquake debris, flooded regions, and even nuclear accident sites,” explained Nemitz. 

Elsewhere, Metal and carbon fiber 3D printer manufacturer Markforged has previously worked in a collaborative effort to develop fully autonomous 3D printed robots capable of traversing underground environments during planetary exploration. 

Developed as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Subterranean Challenge (DARPA), Markforged 3D printers were used to apply quick iterations and fixes to the robot throughout the competition. 

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