Print Your Own Robot?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 4 2012 6:14 PM

Print Your Own Robot?

Behind every robot is a story of time, money, and expertise—and those factors keep robots in the hands of researchers, engineers, and dedicated hobbyists, out of the general public’s reach. But a team of roboticists is now enlisting printers to bring robots to the masses.

Led by MIT professor Daniela Rus, a five-year project is underway to create an easy-to-use system that lets anybody customize a robot and print it out within 24 hours. If you want a robot for home use, you would just head to a local printing store, select a blueprint from a set of designs, customize it to fit your needs, and pick up the final product the next day.

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Materials like paper would keep costs and production times down. Further, it wouldn’t require too many technical skills. According to Wired’s Gadget Lab:

As it stands now, a robot would come pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks, but if a user wanted more advanced actions, he or she could build up those actions using the bot’s basic capabilities. That advanced set of commands could be programmed in a computer and beamed wirelessly to the robot. And as voice parsing systems get better, Rus thinks you might be able to simply tell your robot to do your bidding.

At this point, it’s unclear how useful and functional the bots could be. The team currently has two working prototypes, shown in the video below. The “origami insect” could be used to explore contaminated areas, according to MIT, though it doesn’t appear to actually crawl forward in the video. (And how many contaminated areas does the average homeowner have to contend with? Wait, maybe we don’t want to know.) The “origami gripper” could be used by people with limited mobility, but still seems too small and fragile for frequent use. But as the project moves forward, we may see prototypes that can serve other roles.

MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania are all collaborating on this project, including Penn professor Vijay Kumar, who became something of a superstar in the robotics world after his February TED talk on quadrotors. The project is funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Expeditions in Computing program.

Read more from Wired.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.

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