A research program that aims to let consumers produce their own customized robots with 3D printers and paper hopes to create a platform that allows people to identify household problems that can be solved by a robot, select a blueprint from a library of designs at a local printing store, customize a robotic device that can solve the problem, and then produce a fully assembled, fully programmed robot within 24 hours.
With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the tune of a $10 million grant, a team of experts from several leading robotics labs will participate in the five-year project, called "An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines." The project is part of the NSF's "Expeditions in Computing" program, and will be led by MIT professor Daniela Rus, a principal investigator at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). CSAIL is the same lab that came up with the 3D navigating robot.
An insect-like robot designed and 3D printed with common materials such as paper could be used for exploring areas inaccessible to, or too dangerous for, humans. (Source: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT)
So far, the researchers have prototyped two machines that could be designed, printed, and programmed with a 3D printer. These are an insect-like robot that could explore contaminated or inaccessible areas, and a gripping device for people with limited mobility. All of these efforts are designed to help speed and simplify the labor of developers in industry and university researchers working on new design platforms. The project targets faster and cheaper design and manufacturing by developing a desktop technology that lets the average person design, customize, and print a specialized robot in a few hours.
Professor Vijay Kumar, who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania, is also the head of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory there, which is responsible for the tiny flying, swarming robots we reported on recently. His team in the NSF project will include Andre DeHon, Sanjeev Khanna, and Insup Lee.
naperlou, the research has only just begun, so you're right that no one is doing this yet. The photos show prototypes, no doubt the ones shown to the NSF. The fact of who is involved also piqued my interest: the concentrated brainpower here is quite high, and many of the people involved have already done some pretty amazing things in robotics.
I agree with your skepticism to some extent, Al and Beth. By looking at the background data, it appears that the researchers have used the words "design and customize" to really mean "customize" on a couple of different levels. What intrigued me about this, aside from the robot angle, is that it's quite in line with other developments Beth has written about regarding the use of blueprints by consumers to 3D print household items. This just takes that a couple steps farther with slightly more complex machines.
Ann, from the pictures I can see that this is a primitive device. Where are the joints? This will not have the mobility that is discussed.
What I really don't understand is the use of the term "democratize". To do what these researchers talk about you could certianly use a wheeled vehicle to better effect. What is the NSF doing funding this? If you could make really useful robots from just a specification language and a 3-D printer then people would be doing it.
Beth, I agree with you on the commercialization aspects of this project. Many of us would support NSF funding for research activities but the focus on "developing a desktop technology that lets the average person design, customize, and print a specialized robot in a few hours" is curious. Certainly the average person isn't going to produce results in terms of research funding, but I assume the project has primarily been funded on its merits as significant research.
Very cool initiative, but I have to wonder about the complexity of creating a 3D printer that is capable of allowing the average consumer to actually produce something that is so complex is terms of functional behaviors, not just physical form. It's one thing for a 3D printer to effortlessly crank out a screw or a bolt or some other physical piece of hardware that can fix a household appliance, but doesn't perform any movement. It's quite another to 3D print an entire robot that has motion to unscrew a jar or open a door.
No doubt it's possible in a research lab; I'm just wondering about the realities of commercialization on a grander scale.
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