The first level of the original Super Mario Bros game is a piece of cake for most people, but has always represented a major hurdle for robot-kind – until now. According to a new study in the journal Science Advances, researchers have created a 3D-printed robotic hand that has sufficient agility and finesse to operate a video game controller, and can complete the first level of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) classic in under 90 seconds.
The new system represents a major step forward within the field of “soft robotics”, which involves the use of highly flexible components that are manipulated by flowing water or air rather than electrical signals. While this concept holds great promise for the development of next-generation prosthetics, the technology required to control the flow of these fluids has posed a major hindrance.
“Previously, each finger of a soft robotic hand would typically need its own control line, which can limit portability and usefulness,” said study author Joshua Hubbard in a statement.
“But by 3D printing the soft robotic hand with our integrated ‘fluidic transistors’, it can play Nintendo based on just one pressure input.” In other words, the movement of all fingers and joints on the hand can be controlled by one flowing fluid. Furthermore, the entire device can be built in a single print run.
“Within the span of one day and with minor labor, researchers can now go from pressing ‘start’ on a 3D printer to having complete soft robots – including all of the soft actuators, fluidic circuit elements, and body features – ready to use,” said study co-author Kristen Edwards.
In their paper, the researchers explain how the fluids that control the device mimic the nature of electrical signals and were first tested on a 3D-printed robotic turtle. For example, a constant flow of fluid, which is analogous with direct current (DC) electrical signals, was used to control the continual oscillation of the turtle’s limbs. A fluctuating flow, meanwhile, mirrors the nature of alternating current (AC) signals and caused the turtle to move its flippers periodically.
The robotic hand was designed to respond to the changing magnitude of flow, which could toggle between low, medium and high pressures, thus mirroring a variable current. In this case, a low pressure input caused the first finger to press the forward button on the controller’s directional pad, prompting Mario to walk. As pressure increased, the movement of different fingers became activated so that Mario could be made to jump and perform other maneuvers.
By preprogramming the control input so that the pressure changed at the appropriate times, the study authors were able to use their hand to guide the mushroom-loving plumber all the way to the finish line.
“We are freely sharing all of our design files so that anyone can readily download, modify on demand, and 3D print… all of the soft robots and fluidic circuit elements from our work,” said project leader Ryan Sochol.
“It is our hope that this open-source 3D printing strategy will broaden accessibility, dissemination, reproducibility, and adoption of soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits and, in turn, accelerate advancement in the field.”