It might soon be relatively trivial to make soft robots — at least, if you have a 3D printer handy. UC San Diego researchers have devised a way to 3D-print insect-like flexible robots cheaply, quickly and without using exotic equipment. The trick was to print “flexoskeletons,” or rigid materials 3D-printed on to flexible and thin polycarbonate sheets. Much like insects, there are features that increase rigidity only in specific areas — a contrast with conventional soft robots that often have soft features tacked on to solid bodies.
Each flexoskeleton component takes about 10 minutes to print, and a completely assembled bot should be ready in less than two hours. An individual part costs less than $1 — the processing power, sensors and battery are likely to be the most expensive parts.
This will initially help researchers build robots quickly and easily, but the final aim is to mass-produce robots without human involvement. That could lead to robot swarms that can accomplish tasks at least as well as large, monolithic machines, but with lower costs and less risk.