Design Engineering

3D printed robot effectively navigates challenging terrain


Additive Manufacturing 3D printing materials Robotics

University of California San Diego engineers use 3D printing to integrate soft and rigid materials into singular components to make a walking robot.

3D printed robot walking

Photo credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering / David Baillot

It can navigate through a variety of challenging ground conditions like no other robot before. The latest 3D printed soft robot designed engineers at the University of California San Diego is capable of walking on surfaces like sand and pebbles.

Researchers led by Michael Tolley, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California San Diego, believe that this new design will open doors for many unique applications including sending the robot into dangerous environment to capture sensor readings.

The unique design and structure of the soft robot was achieved through high-end 3D printing capabilities. The researchers were able to print soft and rigid materials together, combining materials in single components.

Bringing together soft and rigid materials will help create a new generation of fast, agile robots that are more adaptable than their predecessors and can safely work side by side with humans, said Tolley. He adds that by harnessing new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, the team was able to translate their ideas into viable robotics solutions.


The legs are made up of three parallel, connected sealed inflatable chambers, or actuators, 3D-printed from a rubber-like material. The chambers are hollow, allowing them to be inflated. On the outside, the chambers are bellowed, which allows engineers to better control the legs’ movements.

Engineers are able to inflate certain chambers to allow the robot’s legs to bend and move. The legs are designed in an X shape and connect to the rigid body.

The gait depends on the order of the timing, the amount of pressure and the order in which the pistons in its four legs are inflated. The robot’s walking behavior in real life also closely matched the researcher’s predictions. This will allow engineers to make better educated decisions when designing soft robots.

The current quadruped robot prototype is tethered to an open source board and an air pump. Researchers hope to miniaturize both the board and the pump so that the robot can walk independently.

For the most part, soft robots have had challenges when it comes to walking. But this new robot is able to efficiently move across challenging surfaces.

The tethered robot was tested on large rocks and inclined surfaces and sand. Researchers also note that it is able to transition from walking to crawling when space is limited.

The team is preparing to present the robot at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation from May 29 to June 3 in Singapore. The findings can be found in “3D Printed Soft Actuators for a Legged Robot Capable of Navigating Unstructured Terrain,” by Dylan Drotman, Saurabh Jadhav, Mahmood Karimi, Philip deZonia, Michael T. Tolley.


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