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Chinese Researchers Develop 4D-printed Soft Robot with Tactile Perception

Image credits: tju.edu.cn/english

Chinese researchers from Tianjin University have developed a single-material soft robot with untethered motion ability, using 4D printing technology. The robot can roll stably and powerfully, and its speed and direction can be adjusted by changing its shape and size. Moreover, the intelligent responsive behaviour of the robot constitutes machine perception based on Artificial Intelligence (AI).

By combining the 3D printing process, intelligent materials, mathematical modelling, and machine-learning algorithms, global researchers are creating 3D objects that can react to external stimuli by transforming over time, thereby adding a fourth dimension. The research team developed the intelligent soft robot with perception and adaptability by processing liquid crystal elastomers through 4D printing.

The soft robot can adapt to different unstructured environments and interact with humans more safely. When the robot is placed on an inclined heating plate at a certain angle, it can roll up autonomously. The whole driving process of this soft robot is automatic and it can complete tasks without human control.

– Feng Wei, Team Leader & Professor, School of Materials Science & Engineering, Tianjin University

Through the perception of heat, the robot can independently change its shape and adjust its speed and direction of movement. Its ability to autonomously control its rolling direction leads to a tactile perception similar to an insect with a pair of antennae, which helps it detect obstacles on the road ahead and make corresponding responses like climbing over or bypassing obstacles based on their height. The robot can carry a load that is 40 times its own weight and has broad application prospects in cargo transportation and intelligent exploration under extreme high-temperature conditions.

According to a paper, the Chinese robot market is one of the largest in the world although the robot density remains far lower than that of many other industrialised nations. Major users include the electrical and electronics sector and the automotive industry, together with growing applications in the burgeoning hospitality and logistics sectors.

Markets are presently dominated by foreign companies, but the government has ambitious plans to boost domestic production, and with the aid of financial incentives, the number of Chinese robot manufactures has recently increased dramatically. The country’s robot research effort is diverse and wide-ranging and benefits from significant levels of government funding. China is ultimately expected to become a major force within the global robot business.

China’s robotics industry is large, but still has significant room for development. The Chinese government has recognised as much in its Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) industrial policy, which identifies the robotics industry as a strategically important sector. This designation creates both opportunities and challenges for foreign investors.

MIC 2025 starts by listing the robotics industry, along with artificial intelligence and automation, as one of the priority sectors for high-end development to push forward the transformation and upgrading of the manufacturing industry.

China has been utilising robots in various fields, including healthcare with the development of vascular interventional surgical robots. As reported by OpenGov Asia, Chinese researchers from the Beijing Institute of Technology have cooperated with Beijing Tiantan Hospital and other units to research core technology optimisation and special consumables of vascular interventional surgery robots. The surgery robot has become the interventional robot product with the fastest research and development progress in China.

With the support of the project of the National Key R&D Programme of China “Industrialisation Research and Application of Minimally Invasive Vascular Interventional Surgery Robot”, the development of the robot was fully completed. At present, the surgical robot, after further technological upgrades, has taken the lead in entering the clinical trial stage registered by the NMPA (National Medical Products Administration), and 123 clinical trial cases have been completed.

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