Los Angeles Times
Little robots show a big leap in design
At UCLA, engineers create a one-step 3-D process for units that move, sense environs.
Building a robot is hard. Building one that can sense its environment and learn how to get around on its own is even harder.
But UCLA engineers took on an even bigger challenge. Not only did they create autonomous robots, they 3-D printed them in a single step.
Each robot is about the size of a fingertip. Their bodies resemble a bamboo mat folded in the shape of an “N,” and they glide around at speeds of up to 25 feet per minute.
What made the feat possible was the invention of a new kind of all-in-one material that’s capable of bending, twisting, flexing and stretching.
“Traditional robots you see today rely on multiple different components,” said Rayne Zheng, a mechanical engineer and leader of the project. The robot’s body, its moving parts and its electronics have to be built separately and then assembled together. “With 3-D-printed materials that can be robotized, we don’t need any of that.”
The advance, described in June in the journal Science, paves the way for inventions including nimble rescue robots able to navigate tight spaces and responsive prosthetics with fewer pieces that can break.
“A lot of times, 3-D printing is kind of used as a novelty to generate hype ... but that’s not the case here,” said Ryan Sochol, a robotics engineer at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study.
Robert MacCurdy, who designs automated robots at the University of Colorado Boulder, called the UCLA work “a real innovation in 3-D printing technology.” He said the printing of a mobile, shape-shifting material with built-in electronic components and remote sensing capabilities has not been achieved before, and it foreshadows “the production of robots in the future.”
Zheng and his colleagues embarked on the project three years ago to see
hoods, skid row is an urban heat island, where roads and other infrastructure absorb and reflect the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests.
The nonprofit Midnight Mission provides basic needs to unhoused and nearly unhoused people, including meal services three times a day, water access and cooling stations. During meal service, 500 to 1,000 people will line up. Berkovich says there is always a shortage of water, but the mission needs it more now, especially as some large donors have left the area.
Water Drop L.A., an aid organization that works in skid row, focuses on keeping the unhoused hydrated. The group distributes about seven pallets of bottled water every weekend, taking it directly to people in tents.
Co-founder Aria Cataño says homeless people have limited options for getting water. If they’re not receiving it from organizations like
Water Drop, they sometimes tap into fire hydrants in order to clean their dishes and wash their bodies.
“I think I see people get water mostly just however they can,” said Sade Kammen, a Water Drop employee.
Cataño says organizations like Water Drop are just Band-Aids that temporarily address the greater issue of lack of resources and access to refuge from heat.
Over the years, there have been initiatives by the city to provide these resources, she said, but the COVID-19 pandemic stalled that progress. The city installed a series of temporary drinking fountains attached to fire hydrants but removed them out of concern they could become sources of coronavirus spread.
“If you’re concerned about germ spread killing people,” Cataño said, “you should also be pretty concerned about, like, dehydration killing people.”
Fueled by climate change, drought has exacerbated heat and shortages of potable water, according to an audit of the California State Water Resources Control Board released last week.
“California is in the midst of a historic drought, which will only increase the strain on many struggling water systems,” wrote state Auditor Michael Tilden.
Mark Rodriguez, a security guard at the Midnight Mission, said the heat has been brutal.
“I’ll be walking up and down the street, giving water to people who are just laid out out there, because it’s so hot,” he said.
Stafford Wilson, who is unhoused, said he’s grateful for the water he gets during the mission’s meal services. He says some people don’t understand the toll dehydration takes on the body.
“The body need the water, and when they forsake that, the body will forsake them,” he said.
In recent weeks, the Midnight Mission has launched social media and email campaigns in hopes of spurring donations, including water, from community members.
“I think maybe as people are experiencing more heat in their locations, maybe they’re feeling more compassionate,” Berkovich said. “So the donations are starting to flow in, but we’re always low on water.”
‘If you’re concerned about germ spread killing people, you should also be pretty concerned about, like, dehydration killing people.’
— Aria Cataño,
Water Drop L.A.