Robot’s Soft Touch Bests Super Mario Bros.

By Robert Herschbach | Photo courtesy of Joshua D. Hubbard and Kristen M. Edwards

A team of researchers from the University of Maryland has 3D-printed a soft robotic hand agile enough to play Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros.—and win.

The feat, highlighted on the cover of Science Advances, demonstrates the promise of “soft robotics”—flexible, inflatable robots powered by water or air rather than electricity. Their inherent safety and adaptability have sparked interest in using them for applications like prosthetics and biomedical devices. Unfortunately, controlling the fluids that make these soft robots bend and move has been a vexing challenge.

But in a key breakthrough, the team led by Ryan D. Sochol, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, developed techniques to 3D-print fully assembled soft robots with “integrated fluidic circuits” in a single step (carried out at the Terrapin Works 3D-printing hub).

As a demonstration, the team designed such a circuit that allowed the hand to operate in response to the strength of a single control input. For example, applying low pressure caused only the first finger to press the Nintendo controller to make Mario walk, while high pressure led to the portly plumber jumping. Guided by a program that autonomously switched between off and low, medium and high pressures, the robotic hand was able to complete the first level of Super Mario Bros. in fewer than 90 seconds.


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