The Atlanta Botanical Garden is home to many plant species and, as of recently, a sloth-inspired 3D printed robot. You read that right. SlothBot is a 3D printed robot, designed to look like a sloth, that crawls around the botanical garden monitoring environmental factors, such as weather, temperature and carbon dioxide levels.
The adorable robot was developed by a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology and was manufactured in collaboration with global AM service network 3D Hubs. SlothBot is installed in the garden’s Storza Woods section and offers an energy efficient solution for monitoring environmental conditions in real time. The robot is powered by solar panels and is programmed to move slowly across a long cable in the greenhouse, mimicking the slow-paced movements of real sloths.
Unlike drones, the SlothBot has an exceptionally long battery life because it is designed to automatically switch off when it’s stationary. If the battery is running low, the robot will move into a brighter area so that it can recharge.
In designing and building the SlothBot, the team from Georgia Tech initially 3D printed a prototype in-house, which consisted of a 5 cm robot that moved along a wire using a wheel. “The first tiny robot prototype was the implementation of the robotic algorithms, where we basically had a microcontroller with a solar panel and a very small lithium battery,” explained Gennaro Notomista, a PhD student at Georgia Tech. “We were trying to see, with the controllers we developed, if the robot was able to move in order to recharge.”
From there, they conceived a second prototype, which integrated a fail-safe mechanism for switching between cables. Another two prototyping rounds enabled the team to find the right structure and weighting for the roaming robot. When the robotics were finalized, Notomista was able to design the sloth-inspired shell. This involved more than just capturing the sloth’s lazy smile: several factors had to be taken into account, such as material type (it had to be rain and UV resistant).
“Because the SlothBot would be deployed outdoors, we wanted a material for the shell that was at least rain and UV resistant,” said Notomista. Eventually, the researcher decided on using PLA Pro, an FDM material with the necessary strength and which could be finished with a rain and UV resistant coating. “We were also considering using carbon fiber as it would have been stronger, but besides being much more expensive, we wanted a material we could color, which wasn’t possible with carbon fiber,” he added. “Also introducing too much rigidity isn’t always a good thing because it means, when the robot hits something, stress is more easily transferred to the components inside the shell. We’d prefer the shell to break over damaging the components inside.”
The shell was uploaded through 3D Hubs’ platform, which provided automated (and eventually some manual) design feedback. The manufacturing network produced all the components for the SlothBot shell designed to house electronic components (encased in a waterproof tube), as well as motors and sensors.
In the future, Notomista hopes the slow-moving, eco-friendly robot will have more applications in the agriculture sector, including for monitoring pollination. For this application, the robot would have to be fitted with a low power satellite connection so it could be deployed in remote areas. A mounted camera and machine learning would also enable the SlothBot to recognize when a pollinator lands on a flower. For now though, the 3D printed SlothBot is a cute and useful addition to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.