Smart 3D printed tentacle with flex-sensor controller

Robotic hearts and tentacles - science meets art

In an interdisciplinary collaboration between roboticists and artists, Dr Peter Walters of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has investigated how "smart" shape-changing materials and 3D printing technologies can be used to make engaging interactive art.

 

In an interdisciplinary collaboration between roboticists and artists, Dr Peter Walters of UWE Bristol has investigated how "smart" shape-changing materials and 3D printing technologies can be used to make engaging interactive art.

Bringing together expertise from UWE Bristol's Centre for Fine Print Research, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, and the University of Bristol's Department of Engineering Mathematics, Dr Walters and colleagues have developed several novel robot devices.

Artificial tentacle

One is an artificial tentacle that moves in a lifelike way when a human operator bends a specially-designed "smart" control wand. The team made the tentacle from a soft elastomer material using 3D printing technology, which builds objects by depositing material layer by layer. They then embedded within it a shape memory alloy or "artificial muscle" –a structure which contracts when electrical currents are passed through it – enabling the tentacle to move as if it were alive. By manipulating a purpose-built, bendable wand containing flex sensors, the tentacle can be controlled like a puppet.

Dr Walters says this approach might well find application in the visual arts, in interactive artworks and "smart puppets" for animation and animatronics, for example. Equally, it could form the basis for designing products that can automatically change their shape or appearance.

Microbe-driven heart

The team has also developed a microbe-driven artificial "heart". This uses gas pressure created by live yeast together with electricity generated by micro-organisms in devices known as microbial fuel cells which generate an electrical current whilst digesting organic waste.

The heart's components were also made using 3D printing. The heart is powered by gas pressure from the yeast which inflates a silicone diaphragm, causing it to expand and close a switch. This triggers the opening of a valve, operated by an 'artificial muscle', which empties the heart so that it is ready for another cycle. The result is that it pulsates – and regulates itself – in ways that are analogous to the heartbeat of a living organism. (See a video at New Scientist TV.)

As well as finding application in "bio-robotic" art and design, the artificial heart could circulate fluids in energy-autonomous robots and, says Dr Walters, perhaps even provide the heartbeat for a cyborg-like machine or "biological automaton".

Early Career Researcher Award

Since his initial support from an Early Career Researcher Award from UWE, Dr Walters has gone on to further collaborations with Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the University of Bristol and now the University of Sheffield. Together they have attracted further funding from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council to investigate the control of artificial muscles for soft robots.

"The Early Career grant allowed us to explore and develop some new directions in research by bringing together creativity and expertise in design, robotics and 3D printing," says Dr Walters, whose background is in three-dimensional design and rapid prototyping. "The funding enabled us to design and prototype a series of novel concepts which demonstrate new physical principles and open up possibilities for future research and creative collaboration. The work has already resulted in a number of publications and has attracted a lot of attention."  

The research team for the project also included Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, a specialist in Microbial Fuel Cells, Dr Jonathan Rossiter, an expert in "smart" artificial muscle materials, and puppet designer and roboticist David McGoran. Together they continue to collaborate in a number of exciting projects at the intersection of art, design and robotics.

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