Introducing the 3D Printed Soft Robotic Hand, capable of playing and winning Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. The 3D Print Soft Robot Hand is created by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland.

Soft Robots focuses on creating new types of flexible, inflatable robots which are powered with water or air rather than electricity. Soft Robots strongly emphasize safety and adaptability in the application, for instance, for prosthetic or biomedical purposes. Unfortunately, it was challenging to manage the fluids that make these soft robots bend and move until now.

The significant discovery by the team was the capability to 3D print fully assembled soft robots along with integrated fluidic circuits in a single step. The team from the University of Maryland was headed by Mr. Ryan D. Sochol, who is their assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

The co-first author, Joshua Hubbard, performed the research during his participation as an undergraduate researcher at UMD in Sochol’s Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing (BAM) Laboratory. He explains:

“Previously, each finger of a soft robotic hand would typically need its own control line, which can limit portability and usefulness. But by 3D printing the soft robotic hand with our integrated “fluidic transistors,” it can play Nintendo based on just one pressure input.”

The team designed an integrated fluidic circuit as a demonstration, enabling the robotic hand to function according to the intensity of single control pressure. For example, when a low pressure was applied, only the first finger was pressed to make Mario walk, whereas an intense pressure prompted Mario to jump. The robotic hand was guided by a predefined software that shifted automatically to off, low, medium, and high pressures and could push the buttons on the controller to accomplish the Super Mario Bros. level in less than 90 seconds.

Another co-first author, Dr. Ruben Acevedo, who is a recent Ph.D. graduate, says:

“Recently, several groups have tried to harness fluidic circuits to enhance the autonomy of soft robots. But the methods for building and integrating those fluidic circuits with the robots can take days to weeks, with a high degree of manual labor and technical skill.”

For overcoming the above obstacles, the team utilized “PolyJet 3D Printing”, which is similar to using a color printer, but with multiple layers of multi-material “inks” stacked on top of one another in 3D.

Kristen Edwards, the study co-author, said,

“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.”

The choice to prove their technique by winning the first level of Super Mario Bros. in real-time was motivated and driven by science as much as it was by fun. Because the video game’s timing and level makeup are established, and only one mistake can lead to an instant game over, playing Mario gave a new technique that has not previously been approached on the field to evaluate soft robot performance.

Additionally, the team of Sochol also disclosed soft robots inspired by turtle terrapin in their paper, along with the Nintendo-playing robotic hand. The terrapin is the official UMD mascot, and all the soft robots of the group were printed in the UMD’s 3D Printing Hub, Terrapin Works.

Another great advantage of this team’s technique is that it is “open source,” with paper open access for anybody to read, and a link to GitHub with all the electronic design files from their research in additional materials.

Currently, the team is researching the utilization of their biomedical method, including rehabilitation tools, surgical instruments, and customizable prosthetics. Since Sochol is an affiliate faculty of the Fischell Department of Bioengineering and a member of the Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices and Maryland Robotics Center, the team has an excellent environment for furthering its mission strategy to address pressing biomedical challenges.