MIT announced Tuesday it has taken the reins on an ambitious five-year research project that would, ultimately, empower the common man to design, program and manufacture his own robots with the help of 3D printing. According to Professor Daniela Rus, project leader and principal investigator at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots.”
The initiative—so-named “An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines”—has received $10 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the foundation’s own “Expeditions in Computing” program. Researchers from MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard have teamed up to develop new technologies that are simple enough for desktop use, and that will allow the general public to design, customize and 3D print worker robots.
Says Rus, “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.”
Here’s how they see it working: First, you would consult a software platform to identify a household problem and its robotic solution. Then, you obtain a robot blueprint from your local 3D printing store and customize it to your particular need, and in under 24 hours, you can print and assemble a fully-programmed robotic servant, even if you have no programming experience.
Professor Vijay Kumar, who heads up UPenn’s research team, had this to say: “Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer. It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools.”
The current state of robotics is such that designing and programming functional robots takes time and money and depends heavily on advanced technologies like hardware and programming. The CSAIL project aims to automate this process and make it accessible to people outside the field. Associate Professor and CSAIL Principal Investigator Wojciech Matusik said, “It’s really exciting to think about the kind of impact this work could have on the general population—beyond just a few select people who work in robotics.”
The researchers, however, will need to surmount certain technological hurdles before they can parlay their vision into reality; to that end, Rus and her colleagues are focusing on:
- Developing a user interface to program robot functions and designs
- Calculating algorithms to control device assembly and operation
- Fostering an easy-to-use programming environment
- Formulating “smart” materials that integrate computer controlled systems into the structure of the device itself
So far, the project has come up with two prototype bots: a six-legged walker bot that can explore such “contaminated areas” as a basement with a gas leak, or your teenager’s bedroom; and a gripper bot that will aid people with disabilities. The program may still be in its infancy but, clearly, this fledgling research into on-demand robotics shows promise, particularly in its application to a broad range of fields and industries. Rob Wood, associate professor at Harvard University, remarked, “This project aims to dramatically reduce the development time for a variety of useful robots, opening the doors to potential applications in manufacturing, education, personalized health care and even disaster relief.”
Of course, what’s left unsaid is the inevitable downside to democratized robotics, namely, that you know some joker somewhere is going to customize Terminator bots, thereby hastening the advent of Skynet and the rise of the machines…