Metallic Glass Breakthrough Opens New Doors For Advanced Robotics

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Modern robotic systems have a limit to their precision and mobility which stems from their gears. If a gear fails it can be the difference between a working robot and a hunk of metal with some fancy computers inside. NASA is taking on the challenge of creating a new class of gears that can help their rovers push on through the harsh conditions found on other planetary bodies and it has peaked the interests of manufacturers.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is working on manufacturing gears from bulk metallic glass (BMG). Technologist, Douglas Hofmann and his team have set out to build a better gear and BMG has played an exciting role. Hoffman carefully crafted these gears from BMG’s which are a specifically designed alloy with properties that make it ideal for robotics.

“Our team of researchers and engineers at JPL, in collaboration with groups at Caltech and UC San Diego, have finally put BMG’s through the necessary testing to demonstrate their potential benefits for NASA spacecraft,” explained Hoffman. He continues, “These materials may be able to offer us solutions for mobility in harsh environments, like Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

BMG isn’t a new material. They have been around since the 1960’s and were originally manufactured at Caltech. These materials can be found in golf clubs and cellphones but scientists have struggled with finding an application in robots and rovers.

Take a look at the video below that offers a explanation of Metallic Glass:

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These materials can be cast using injection-molding technology because of their low melting temperatures. They are also extremely resistant to cold, able to operate without lubrication in temperatures as low as -200 degrees Celsius. BMGs don’t become brittle in cold like other thinner metals or high-strength plastics.

The plan is to use BMGs in strain wave gears, a type of gear which is common in expensive robotic systems. Manufacturing strain wave gears from BMGs will perform better than traditional gears while being only a fraction of the cost.

Metallic glass has been around for so long but with these recent breakthroughs it may lead to an exciting future for BMGs. Manufacturers that develop robotic systems to work in harsh environments here on Earth may be able to capitalize on these developments. It will be interesting to see what other roles Metallic Glasses can play throughout the manufacturing industry in the future.