On Monday, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have announced that they used 3D printing technology to create custom shock-absorbing “dampers,” or “skins,” to protect drones and robots.

Dubbed the “programmable viscoelastic material” (PVM) technique, MIT’s printing method gives objects the precise stiffness or elasticity they require.

Inspiration for the project came from a dilemma, according to MIT. Common damper materials typically have both solid and liquid properties and are made from cheap, compact, easily found items such as rubber or plastic. However, these items are difficult to customize, and can’t usually be created outside of specific sizes and dampening levels that are already in place.

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The team solved the problem by using 3D printing technology to create a bouncing cube-shaped robot out of a solid, a liquid and a flexible rubber-like material called TangoBlack+. In addition to absorbing shock, the cube robot was able to land more precisely courtesy of its skin.

“That reduction makes all the difference for preventing a rotor from breaking off of a drone or a sensor from cracking when it hits the floor,” said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, who oversaw the project and co-wrote a related paper. “These materials allow us to 3-D print robots with visco-elastic properties that can be inputted by the user at print-time as part of the fabrication process.”

MIT said the technology could be used to expand the lifespan of delivery drones used by Google and Amazon. On a more practical level, it can also be employed to perform tasks such as helping protect phones, or cushioning heads in helmets and feet in shoes.   

Findings will be officially presented in a paper later this week, according to MIT.