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Image credit: MIT CSAIL

MIT's shock-absorbing robots are safer and more precise

Their 3D-printed skins help them absorb blows.

Soft robots aren't just about speed and grace... they should be safer, too. To prove that point, MIT's CSAIL has developed bouncing robots whose 3D-printed soft skins act as shock absorbers. The technique revolves around printing a "programmable viscoelastic material" where every aspect of the skin (which includes solids, liquids and a rubber-like substance called TangoBlack+) is tuned to the right level of elasticity. The robot can give way where it needs to, but remain solid otherwise. As a result, it can bounce around without taking damage, and land four times more precisely than it would with an inflexible surface.

Moreover, the material is very practical. It's cheap and easy to find, and the 3D printing eliminates problems with customization. You only need a single print job to create the skin instead of a complicated, time-consuming engineering process.

The invention should primarily help with the durability and safety of robots, of course. You could see robot helpers that work alongside humans without fear of injury, and rescue robots that won't easily break if they fall. They would be more precise, as well, as an unexpected collision wouldn't throw them off. However, the material could be useful for all kinds of products. CSAIL envisions phones, helmets, and other impact-prone devices that would be that much better at surviving horrible blows.

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