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.
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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.”