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Scientists plan 3D printable robots for the home

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A team of academics has won a $10m grant for a five-year project to develop robots that can be designed and manufactured by anyone within 24 hours.

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

Origami robot

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Dubbed "An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines," the goal for the team from Harvard, Penn State and MIT is to allow anyone to design and customize a robot design to suit a variety of household purposes. They envisage local 3D printing workshops, where anyone could come in, pick an off the shelf robot design, customize it on-screen to suit the task at hand and then have it printed and assembled in the shop for pickup or delivery.

Obviously that's not going to be happening any time soon. Based on the video the team has released the prototype printed robots need a lot of work. There's a barely functional origami insect and a rather sad looking plastic fish, although the grabbing device looks promising, if a little basic. But the grant, which comes courtesy of the National Science Foundation, is designed to lay the groundwork for increasing ease of access to robotics in general.

"This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society," says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, leader of the project and a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). "We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots."

The first stage is to design and build the machinery needed to assemble a wide variety of functional robot forms, then sort out the planning and control algorithms needed to operate such a device and working out a way that people can design their specific robot and build it without anyone getting hurt. They are also researching how programmable materials might be used to speed up construction.

"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 of function, and delivers a programmable machine for that function using simple printing processes," said Rus.

So is it likely that the scheme will come off as envisaged? Almost certainly not, since assembly requires the user to be a dab hand with a soldering iron, have the knowledge to buy and build a circuit board and own a working 3D printer. But the tools being developed could be used by the private sector to simplify robotics design and manufacture, and possibly spur a cottage industry or two. ®

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