Custom-designed printable robots could be on the way
By Ben Coxworth
April 3, 2012
Already, people are pretty excited at the idea of being able to create inanimate objects using a 3D printer. Imagine, though, if you could create and print an actual moving robot, using a printer-like device in a store. If a group of scientists taking part in a new project are successful, that’s exactly what you will some day be able to do.
The five-year project, entitled “An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines,” is funded by a US$10 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It’s being led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.
Presently, in can take up to several years to design, program and build a functioning robot. The scientists involved in the project, however, hope to automate that process.
In their scenario, an ordinary person would start by using a custom platform to identify a household problem that needed to be addressed. They would then proceed to a local printing store, where they would select an appropriate robot design from a catalog of blueprints. Using an interface in the store, they would subsequently customize that design to suit their specific needs. Within a day, their origami-like robot would be printed, programmed and ready to go.
The researchers are currently concentrating on several aspects of the system, including a specification and design interface, algorithms for controlling the “robot printer,” a user-friendly programming language, and programmable materials that could be used for constructing the robots.
They have also built two prototype machines, that can design, print and program a small insect-like exploratory robot, and a gripping tool that could be used by the disabled. Those robotic devices are made from a thermoplastic known as PEEK, and can be seen in action in the video below.
“This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society,” said MIT’s Prof. Daniela Rus, who is leading the project. “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots.”