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?
A robotic gripper printed and designed by Daniela Rus' group at MIT. Photo: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL/MIT
The printed insect-like robot, seen from above. Photo: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL/MIT
A self-contained, soft robotic fish printed using a new fabrication technique developed at MIT. Photo: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL/MIT
Erico Guizzo is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. He has written stories on a wide range of science and technology topics, including Japanese androids, French computer codes, Icelandic video games, American crash-test dummies, and Canadian bacteria. His main area of interest is robotics, and he has written and edited hundreds of articles and videos featuring the latest advances in this field. He is also the cocreator of Spectrum’s critically acclaimed Robots for iPad app. For his robotics coverage, Guizzo has won four Neal Awards and has been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards. An IEEE member, he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of São Paulo, in his native Brazil, and a master’s in science writing from MIT.