All In A Day’s Work: Design and Print Your Own Robot

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An elderly woman who lives alone needs assistance with everything from remembering to take her medicine to putting away the dishes. Her children work fulltime and are only able to assist her on nights and weekends. To assist her mother during those daytime hours when she is all alone, her daughter goes to her local printing store, designs a handy device that can help around the house, and 24 hours later delivers her mother a fully assembled and operational robot.

Professor Daniela Rus is leading an ambitious new project to reinvent how robots are produced and designed. Funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project will aim to develop a desktop technology that would make it possible for the average person to design, customize and print a specialized robot in a matter of hours.

“This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and other functional machines, and could have a profound impact on society,” said Rus, a principal investigator at CSAIL where she leads the Distributed Robotics Lab. “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots.”

This video shows three of the first devices to be prototyped at CSAIL using a new technology that could make it possible for the average person to design, customize and print a specialized robot in a matter of hours.
Video: Tom Buehler, CSAIL
“Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer,” said Professor Vijay Kumar, who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania. “It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools.”
The five-year project, called “An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines,” brings together a team of researchers from MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, and is funded as part of the NSF’s “Expeditions in Computing” program.
It currently takes years to produce, program and design a functioning robot, and is an extremely expensive process, involving hardware and software design, machine learning and vision, and advanced programming techniques. The new project would completely automate the process of producing functional 3-D devices and allow individuals to design and build functional robots from materials as easily accessible as a sheet of paper.
“Our vision is to develop an end-to-end process; specifically, a compiler for building physical machines that starts with a high level of specification and delivers a programmable, adaptable machine using simple printing processes,” said Rus.
Researchers hope to create a platform that would allow an individual to identify a household problem that needs assistance; then head to a local printing store to select a blueprint, from a library of robotic designs; and then customize an easy-to-use robotic device that could solve the problem. Within 24 hours, the robot would be printed, assembled, fully programmed and ready for action.

By altering the way in which machines can be produced, designed and built, the project could have far reaching implications for a variety of fields.

"This project aims to 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,” said Rob Wood, an associate professor at Harvard University.
Currently, team members are focusing their research in several areas: Developing an application programming interface for simple function specification and design; writing algorithms that would allow for control of the assembly of a device and its operations; creating an easy-to-use programming language environment; and designing new, programmable materials that would allow for automatic fabrication of robots.
Thus far, the research team has prototyped two machines for designing, printing and programming, including an insect-like robot that could be used for exploring a contaminated area and a gripper that could be used by people with limited mobility.
 “It’s really exciting to think about the kind of impact this work will have on the general population – beyond just a few select people who work in robotics,” said Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik, also a principal investigator at CSAIL.
In addition to Rus, other research collaborators from CSAIL include Visiting Scientist Martin Demaine, Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik, Professor Martin Rinard, and Assistant Professor Sangbae Kim of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. The team also includes Professor Vijay Kumar (who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania, including Associate Professor Andre DeHon, Professor Sanjeev Khanna, Professor Insup Lee), and Associate Professor Rob Wood from Harvard University.
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A robotic gripper printed and designed through the new process that aims to revolutionize the way robots are created. The gripper could be used by people with limited mobility.
Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL
April 24, 2012
Abby Abazorius, CSAIL