US Scientists Plan On-Demand Robots

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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A team from MIT wants anyone to be able to go to a shop, get a design and print their own cybernetic machines

A team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has won a $10 million (£6.3m) Expeditions in Computing award that will fund a five-year project to develop printable robots.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it will invest in the project, along with three others on Tuesday.

The scientists intend to design and produce 3D robotic systems using 2D desktop technology fabrication methods. In the long run, this technology could allow regular people to customise and print a specialised robot in a matter of hours, instead of years.

The game changer

The team from MIT is developing a future desktop technology that prints actual programmable hybrid electro-mechanical devices from simple descriptions on-demand, and with performance one would expect from a team of professional engineers.

The ambitious project is headed by Professor Daniela Rus from MIT, and conducted in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

“This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society,” said Rus, a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratise access to robots.”

It currently takes years to produce, program and design a functioning robot, and it is an extremely expensive process, involving hardware and software design, machine learning and vision, and advanced programming techniques.

The team is busy creating tools that would make this process as simple and automated as possible. The idea is, in the future you won’t have to know cybernetics or programming to build a robot.

Robots for everyone

Researchers hope to create a platform that would allow an individual to identify a household problem that needs assistance before heading to a local printing store to select a blueprint from a library of robotic designs. They would then customise an easy-to-use robotic device that could solve the problem. Within 24 hours, the robot would be printed, assembled, fully programmed and ready for action.

“This project aims to dramatically reduce the development time for a variety of useful robots, opening the doors to potential applications in manufacturing, education, personalised healthcare and even disaster relief,” said Rob Wood, an associate professor at Harvard University.

So far, the research team has prototyped two machines, including an insect-like robot that could be used for exploring a contaminated area and a gripper that could be used by people with limited mobility.

The team from MIT got one of the four prizes awarded by the NSF. Another related project that received £6.3 million funding is developing techniques that will enable the design, implementation and evaluation of robots that encourage social, emotional and cognitive growth in children. In the future, these “socially assistive robots” could be used in education and healthcare.

The third award was given to a team of scientists tackling Big Data issues, trying to use the ocean of information for traffic prediction, environmental monitoring, urban planning and network security.

The final award will fund researchers trying to teach computers how to program other computers.

You can watch the printable robots scurrying around in the video below. Sure, they don’t look like much now, but give it several years and we might have to fight them for survival of the human race.


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