WORCESTER, Mass. - A near $600,000 grant will help a WPI professor develop 3D-printed robots to aid search and rescue operations.

Markus Nemitz, a professor of robotics, is the recipient of the CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. 

3D printing is when you create structures from a plastic-like material. The robots he'll be designing will be able to move around on challenging terrains by swimming, crawling, climbing, and diving through confined spaces. Nemitz says each disaster is unique, so there will be a variation in size for these robots, with some as small as a mouse and some the size of a basketball. 

"The entire idea of, a problem happens somewhere in the world, and we want the world population to respond and do that by being at their computers at home to design a solution, a robotic solution, that is then being printed out at the point of interest," Nemitz said. "That is what we're trying to do. The beauty of this work is that the simplicity of 3D printing, of commercial 3D printing, combined with clever designs, that allows you to build sophisticated robots."

The robots help ensure humans don't have to explore hazardous areas, and they can help victims of earthquakes, floods, or in extreme cases, a nuclear incident.

In total, it's expected to be a five year project. Once printed and built, Nemitz and students will test the robots in a model replicating a cave in Thailand, where flooding trapped 12 members of a youth soccer team and their coach in 2018.