Print Your Own Robots
March 18, 2013

Print Your Own Robots

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

The boom of 3D printing has opened up countless possibilities, from reproducing human ears to building single-use weaponry.

Now, roboticists are adding another potential candidate to the PYO (print your own) revolution: Robots.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project has now set about developing a robot which can be designed, customized and brought to life in a matter of hours. It currently takes considerably longer than this to build a functioning robot.

"This research aims to revolutionize the design and manufacture of robots, which could have a profound impact on society," says Ralph Wachter, program director for the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

"It would remove barriers and allow the average person to create and customize his or her own robot to meet his or her specific needs. This opens the door to great possibilities in diverse fields spanning health care, energy and transportation."

Daniela Ruse is a professor at MIT and the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). Her lab is busy developing ways to create these quickly printed robots.

“My goal is to make robots more capable [and] more autonomous. In other words, to bring machines into every day life in such a way that our lives would be improved and enhanced by these machines,” said Ruse in a video describing her lab´s work.

[ Watch the Video: Printable Robots Designed to be Consumer-friendly ]

So far, these robots aren´t printed in 3D, so much as they´re etched from a single sheet of 2D plastic and then later folded into 3D shapes. Once these shapes have been formed by human hands, they´re outfitted with all the necessary components, such as controls and motors.

The magic of these robots is in the brain, or the circuit that tells the robot what to do. Using an inkjet printer, the design of the circuit is printed onto a single piece of copper.

“At the moment, we add these components by hand, in the future we imagine automating that process,” said Ruse in the video.

At present, the project seems to be more about ideas and plans for what could happen one day in the future of 3D printed robots rather than schematics which can be downloaded to print your own robots at will.

Yet, it´s this kind of planning and research that could one day result in a future where senior citizens could print a tiny robot meant to help them pick things up from the ground, all on the cheap.

"We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots,” Ruse said in the statement.

CSAIL is also researching the different societal issues that could arise from the availability of 3D-printable robots, an important aspect to keep in mind.

In addition to using these robots in the medical field, CSAIL also wants to see these bots used in education, manufacturing and transportation.

"Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer," adds University of Pennsylvania engineering professor Vijay Kumar.

"It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools."