Robots have come a long way, moving past their traditional image of stiff metal machines and becoming something much more varied and sophisticated. Soft robotics is an expanding field, leading to everything from virtual reality applications to artificial muscle. Artificial muscles are a promising development, with applications that include prosthetics, implants, drug delivery systems, and other medical devices, and they are the focus of a new collaboration between UCLA and bioprinting company Aether.

Aether and UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering will work together to develop technologies for faster, easier fabrication of soft artificial muscles and other multi-material structures. Aether will work on optimizing the Aether 1 bioprinter and its computer vision capabilities to automate the process of 3D printing soft robotic devices, improve print quality and ease of use.

Aether recently upgraded its automatic offset calibration system to make embedding conductive materials easier than ever before, using computer vision to automatically calculate precise offsets for multiple tools and tool types. This allows users to extrude multiple materials side by side without overlapping or gaps and enables conductive materials like graphene or silver nanoparticles to be printed directly into robotic devices, eliminating the need for wires.

Partnering with UCLA is personal for Aether CEO Ryan Franks, who caught pneumonia 10 years ago and was hospitalized at UCLA Hospital. He was healed thanks to a lifesaving procedure performed by Dr. Abbas Ardehali. The procedure was called VATS, or video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery, and it sparked Franks’ interest in medical technology, leading directly to the founding of Aether.

“Working on technology with UCLA is something I’ve dreamed of for a long time,” said Franks. “There’s no one better when it comes to robotics, and the fact that UCLA faculty saved my life makes this collaboration incredibly special.”

Aether Director of Engineering Marissa Buell (a fellow UCLA Engineering alumni), CEO Ryan Franks, and students at UCLA with Aether 1 beta unit [Image: Aether]

UCLA researchers will also join a collaboration between Aether and Harvard Medical School and will receive pre-release access to Aether’s upcoming advanced visualization AI software, featuring ASAR (Automatic Segmentation and Reconstruction) technology. ASAR allows users to view medical images like CT scans or X-rays. They can select a desired organ or tissue type and quickly obtain a segmented organ 3D file. The system simplifies medical analysis and saves time, allowing surrounding anatomy to be quickly removed for a clearer focus.

In 2019, Aether will launch software that will allow users to create 3D printable organs from medical images with the push of a button, and according to the company, it will be priced lower than competing software. Aether also states that the software is faster than that of competitors, taking only seconds to do what previously has taken hours or even days.

Aether also released a new video today that shows the Aether 1 printing an analog of a microfluidic device, using eight tools in one print. First, two FDM extruders print a substrate in two colors of PLA. Then, two colors of silicone are printed on the substrate as aboveground wells, which are then cured by the UV LED. A laser engraves two thin grooves in the PLA substrate to serve as belowground liquid channels. Two microvalves, each filled with a different color of water, then jet liquid into the two aboveground wells and belowground channels. You can see the video below:

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