Robots are already used to facilitate the rescue of survivors in any number of disaster scenarios, but the process is both expensive and time-consuming. It usually involves sending in remote-controlled droids to reconnoiter danger environments.
That might mean an unstable building on the verge of collapse, the site of a radiological spill, or even the location of an active shooter. 3D printed “soft” robots might make these search and rescue scenarios even easier for first responders. It’s not a giant leap of logic to see why the army wants this technology.
With the help of the University of Minnesota, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory is exploring options to develop these soft robots. Researchers have thus far created robots that might remind you of a squid or octopus, but the new prototype is only about an inch in length. The robots look like common invertebrates so they might have similar maneuverability in tight situations. The idea is that they can navigate tight crevices or obstacles with which humans might have trouble.
The creation of these kinds of robots isn’t easy, and it requires technology that isn’t readily available. The elastic actuators that help the soft robots remain flexible were 3D printed. Other materials include sensors made from nanomaterials and artificial muscles produced in a laboratory.
The best part of these new robots? They don’t require a remote control in order to operate effectively. Soft robots react to environmental stimuli in order to move on their own. That means the current need for human oversight can be scaled down.
The army hopes to scale the technology so it can be both produced and used out in the field. That way each robot would function as needed in the moment. Combine this technology with the advancement of lifelike robotics all over the world, and it’s easy to imagine that we might see armies of autonomous soft robots used in combat situations not too far in the future.