August 31, 2012      

If you’ve ever built your own custom-designed robot, you know how challenging the process is. Months, perhaps even years, of planning and designing are required simply to get the ball rolling. Then there’s all that money you need to raise just to begin production.

A team of scientists from some of the nation’s top universities feel your pain. With $10 million in National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, the researchers are joining forces to make building your own robot almost as easy as printing a grant request.

If the scientists’ ambitious new five-year project fulfills its objectives, they will be able to offer businesses a desktop technology that would make it possible for anyone, even those without advanced technical knowledge, to design, customize and print a specialized robot in a matter of hours.

The project, dubbed “An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines,” unites researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard University. The initiative’s goal is to automate the production of fully functional 3-D devices, enabling users to design and build functional robots from common and readily available materials.

The concept could have a profound effect on a wide range of businesses. Team leader Vijay Kumar, a roboticist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering & Applied Sciences, says that the new technology will be a “game changer,” helping companies of all sizes and in virtually all fields rapidly design and manufacture a wide range of customized goods. The approach also promises to forever change the way science and technology are taught in schools.

Printing process

As the project launches, the scientists are conducting research in several key areas, such as developing an application programming interface (API) for simple function design and specification, writing algorithms for controlling device assembly and operation, creating an easy-to-use programming language environment and designing new programmable materials that would allow automatic robot fabrication.

The researchers are looking to create a development and fabrication environment that would eliminate the complex processes that currently make building a robot so difficult, time-consuming, and costly, such as hardware and software design, machine learning and vision and advanced programming techniques.

3D Printing_additive manufacturing

The project would give ordinary people a system for identifying a specific business- or household-related problem that needs assistance. The user would then select an appropriate blueprint from a library of robotic designs, customize the design to meet his or her specific needs and then head to a local printing store to place an order for an easy-to-use robotic device. Within a day or so, the robot would be printed, assembled, programmed and ready for use.

The technology bears some similarity to the 3-D printing systems currently used for rapid prototyping, although capable of producing much more sophisticated and highly functional devices.

The researchers have already prototyped two machines: an insect-like robot that could be used for exploring areas contaminated by chemical, biological, or nuclear materials, and a gripper designed for use by people with limited mobility.

New horizons

Rob Wood, an associate professor in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says the planned technology’s low cost and ease of use will open the door to new robot applications in manufacturing, education, personalized health care, and even disaster relief.

Since the system is easy enough for almost anyone to use, it creates an intriguing question: Will it be easy enough for a smart machine to use, allowing robots to build robots? Right now, no one is sure. But there’s a pretty good chance we’ll know the answer in just a few years.

See related: The Beat Goes on for 3-D Printing