Robotics engineers have used 3D printing to create the joints for ‘Bat Bot,’ a futuristic flying robot that mimics the way bats move through the air. The winged creation, otherwise known simply as ‘B2,’ could serve as an aerial service robot.
Given the number of biologically inspired items of technology these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that engineers have more-or-less given up trying to “create” new things. Why build a car when you can get out a microscope and make a 3D printed octopus? Or a burrowing, biomimetic, 3D printed worm robot, for that matter? We joke, of course, but the number of biologically inspired technological creations really does seem to be on the rise, as humans come to realize that some of the most spectacular innovations are brought about by genes rather than minds. The latest addition to the collection is a partially 3D printed flying bat, which swoops and dives just like the animal it aims to replicate.
While there is a seemingly infinite number of flying robots in the world, and even many robots with flapping wings, there are very few which favor thin, elastic wings over their rigid counterparts. According to the researchers behind the Bat Bot, this could be a mistake: “When a bat flaps its wings, it’s like a rubber sheet—it fills up with air and deforms,” said study co-author Seth Hutchinson, a robotics engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speaking to Live Science. This process of drawing in and expelling air generates extra lift, something the researchers have tried to harness in their new robot.
Although designed on biological principles, the B2 Bat Bot was created using several synthetic materials and manufacturing techniques. Its wings consist of carbon fiber bones, 3D printed plastic ball-and-socket joints, and a 56-micron-thick silicone skin that covers the internal “skeleton.” Micro-motors in the robot’s backbone power the wings, which can flap up to 10 times per second, helping the bat fly at speeds averaging 18.37 feet per second (5.6 meters per second). These speeds increase to 45.9 feet per second (14 m/s) while the robot is swooping down without flapping.
The 3D printed Bat Bot and (below) a bat
The Bat Bot certainly looks impressive, and it clearly works more than capably. But what exactly is the use of it? Well, for starters, the researchers behind the winged robot say it could be used for many of the things common drones or quadcopters are currently used for, only without the risks involved with crashing. Since the Bat Bot weighs only about 3.3 ounces (93 grams) and measures 18.5 inches (47 centimeters) in wingspan, it poses little threat to humans or the environment.
Because of the inherently safe nature of the Bat Bots, Hutchinson thinks they could be used to monitor progress on construction sites, or as “aerial service robots at home or in hospitals to help the elderly or disabled by quickly fetching small objects, relaying audio and video from various distant locations without requiring hard-mounting of multiple cameras, and becoming fun, pet-like companions.” We’re not sure if the last suggestion is a serious one, but we’re mostly convinced.
Creators of the Bat Bot say the robot, if equipped with the appropriate equipment, could also be used to inspect disaster zones. In the case of a nuclear emergency, for example, deploying the bats for surveillance and radiation detection would be far safer and more effective than deploying a human team to do the same thing.
An interesting final use for the partially 3D printed Bat Bot involves the study of bats themselves. Bats have more than 40 joints in their wings, but scientists actually don’t know all that much about how their system of flight works. By trying out different configurations on the Bat Bot, the researchers hope they might be able to uncover some secrets about how the mysterious mammals are able to maneuver so majestically.
The researchers’ full findings have been published in the journal Science Robotics.