Artists, Designers and Engineers Join Forces to Build Protective Body Panels for Robots

ESCHER wears a contoured suit of 3-D printed body panels created to improve the utility and aesthetics of the humanoid robot.

A Virginia Tech art professor and visual communication design professor are working with one of the university’s engineering departments to improve the aesthetics and utility of protective body panels for a robot built by Virginia Tech students to complete search-and-rescue tasks.

ESCHER is a humanoid robot created to respond to natural or man-made disasters. Designed and built in the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering & Controls Laboratory, which is based in Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, ESCHER stands roughly 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs around 165 pounds.

Two faculty fellows with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology received $25,000 in support from the Institute’s Science, Engineering, Art, and Design Major Initiative Program to design and create a contoured suit of 3-D printed body panels for ESCHER to promote familiarity and recognition of the robot as an emergency first responder, while also providing protection from impact, heat, and water damage.

This collaboration is an example of how artists, designers, and engineers at Virginia Tech are working together to create better products.

Humanoid robots are being developed for hazard response in industrial facilities and as first responders onboard U.S. Navy ships. In both applications, the exterior panels of the robot need to clearly identify the robot in its role while also providing protection from impact and environmental elements.

The robots’ effectiveness on the job will in part depend on the nature they project to the humans they work with. The humanoid robot working in an industrial application will need to have an appearance that makes it approachable and identifies its job function.

Virginia Tech faculty members Sam Blanchard, assistant professor of sculpture in the School of Visual Arts, and Meaghan Dee, assistant professor and chair of the Visual Communication Design Program, have worked with a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering to create interchangeable body panels to improve the aesthetic and functional performance of ESCHER.

The panels will allow the robot to operate in different environments and serve as a baseline platform for future task-specific versions of the panels. Future applications could be more specific to environmental conditions. For example, a firefighting robot could have panels constructed of a fire resistant material or designed to guard against water spray.

With environmental protection, impact resistance, and high visibility in mind, the digitally sculpted 3-D printed parts for ESCHER are made from high temperature-resistant plastic designed to soften the hard angles of the existing robot frame and bring inline the overall proportions. Between the panels is a custom-manufactured, water-resistant, flexible fabric that is flame resistant and dimensionally stable at high temperatures.

The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology is currently accepting proposals for its Science, Engineering, Art, and Design Major Initiative Program, which provided the support for this project. With funding amounts up to $25,000, the annual awards support transdisciplinary research that is creative, innovative, and shows a strong potential for extramural funding.

The submission deadline for proposals is March 13. Information about the institute’s current funding opportunities and instructions for application submissions are available online.