Revolutionary Breakthrough: Autonomous Robot Capable of 3D Printing its Own Body Developed by Researchers


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Researchers from Italy’s Fondazione Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia and the University of Montpellier in France have developed a unique snake-like robot that is autonomous and capable of 3D printing its own body in order to grow.

The robot pulls PLA filament along its body, originating from a spool at the base, as its head revolves. This filament is then put through a heated nozzle located in the robot’s head, which allows for the extrusion and 3D printing of additional layers upon the tubular body of the robot. 

Referred to as the FiloBot, this innovative robot is inspired by vine-like climbing plants. It employs sensors to identify the direction in which it should grow. 

For instance, the robot can be programmed to 3D print in the direction of a given light source, thereby ensuring constant growth upwards and away from the ground. Other external factors, such as gravity and shade, can also be utilized to guide the robot’s growth direction. 

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.

FiloBot: an autonomous self-3D printing robot

The FinoBot’s 3D printing process is influenced by varying factors such as temperature, orientation, and rate, due to the lack of uniformity. Apart from an extruder, the robot’s conical head is also equipped with light sensors, a gyroscope, and other electrical components.

These components allow the robot to determine the direction and intensity of gravity, blue light, red light, and far-red light. They also guide the 3D printing process based on these perceptions. This ability grants the FiloBot self-sufficiency as it roams its surroundings without relying on predetermined movements or path planning.

In addition, the FiloBot is designed to find and approach support structures. Once it identifies these structures, the robot adapts a winding motion to climb and navigate these supports.

The mechanical properties of the FiloBot can also be adjusted according to its environment and given tasks. This adaptive ability enables the robot to optimize its energy usage throughout the 3D printing process.

For example, the FiloBot autonomously uses less energy to print a lighter body when growing on a support structure like a tree trunk. Conversely, the robot prints a stronger body to sustain itself when it encounters open spaces. Moreover, the FiloBot is designed to trigger faster growth when moving along a support structure.

The unique growth mechanism of the FiloBot, as per the researchers, holds significant advantages over traditional flying, wheeled, or legged robots.

Notably, these growing robots have the capability to navigate both above and below the ground, and they can penetrate dense substances like soil. The stem-like body of the FiloBot can traverse various types of terrains and can overcome unpredictable obstacles. The snake-like robot remains constantly tethered to an energy source, primarily eliminating energy supply issues.

As stated in the researchers’ paper, “Incorporating features inspired by climbing plants allows the robot to minimize construction costs in terms of energy and materials while maximizing simplicity for sensing and computing strategies. Our design allows our plant-inspired robot to execute 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

3D Printing Robots for Challenging Environments

3D printing technology is frequently used to create robots that can navigate difficult terrains. In the previous year, an announcement revealed that Markus Nemitz, a researcher from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), had obtained a grant of $599,815 to create a new category of affordable, 3D printed soft robots specifically designed for search and rescue missions.

As part of a CAREER Award sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Nemitz’s study concentrates on the creation of miniature, flexible robots with in-built fluidic circuits that can be quickly built and personalized depending on the specific disaster scenario. These robots can be fitted with various sensors such as microphones and cameras to enhance the capabilities of the rescue team.

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