Printable Robots: MIT Project Wants to Let You Design and Fabricate Your Own Machines

mit printable origami insect robot
An insect-like robot designed and printed using new fabrication techniques developed by MIT researchers. Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT

Who knew that origami could be the future of robotics?

Today, if you want to design and build your own robot, you have to order components, write software, and then assemble and test your creation. Of course, the more sophisticated your robot gets, the more time and money you have to spend on it.

Now imagine if you could use a computer program to specify the overall capabilities and appearance of your robot and, with the push of a button, have the robot fabricated by a special printer right in your living room. That's a futuristic scenario that a new MIT project wants to turn into reality.

Funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project aims to reinvent how robots are designed and produced by developing technology to allow an average person to create programmable robots in a matter of hours. Watch:

"This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society," MIT professor Daniela Rus, leader of the project, said in a statement, adding that the project could help to "democratize access to robots."

The researchers believe that it currently takes too much time and effort to produce and program a robot, and that people are constantly reinventing the wheel. Their goal is to develop software tools and fabrication devices to allow people to rapidly design, customize, and "print" a full robot.

As an analogy, Rus explains that just as a compiler transforms source code into a fully functional application, the researchers want to create a "compiler for building physical machines" that takes a set of specifications and fabricates a programmable robot using simple printing processes and materials.

The researchers are just starting to explore how to accomplish that. They're currently developing an easy-to-use programming environment and testing new materials that would allow for automated fabrication of robot parts. Using these methods, the team has already built a few prototypes, including an insect-like robot, a self-contained soft robotic fish, and a small mechanical gripper.

Cagdas Onal, an MIT postdoc, explains that they're using a material called PEEK, or polyether ether ketone, which he says has "good dimensional stability, laser machining properties, and thermal characteristics."

To print the robots, the researchers are using a variety of custom planar fabrication techniques. "The robot bodies are fabricated by laser machining, and their custom flexible circuits are fabricated using regular printers and etching," Onal says. "We use planar molds to create our soft robots from silicone rubber."

The researchers are already able to place metal wiring on the body of the robots before they are folded. In the future, their goal is to incorporate all electronics -- chips, sensors, power sources -- into the printing process.

Also involved in the project are researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

Rob Wood, a professor at Harvard University who's known for his small flying robots, says the project could "dramatically reduce the development time for a variety of useful robots, opening the doors to potential applications in manufacturing, education, personalized healthcare, and even disaster relief."

Vijay Kumar, who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania, added that the project could "allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools."

It remains to be seen whether robots fabricated with these new methods will scale in size and prove robust enough for real-world applications. However, the same was said years ago about 3D printing and rapid prototyping techniques, which are now ever more popular in both DIY and academic projects.

So perhaps origami is indeed the future of robots. What do you think?

More images:

mit printable robotic gripper
A robotic gripper printed and designed by Daniela Rus' group at MIT. Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT

mit printable origami insect robot
The printed insect-like robot, seen from above. Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT

MIT printable robotic fish
A self-contained, soft robotic fish printed using a new fabrication technique developed at MIT. Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT

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