Collection of printed robots

‘Robogami’ allows for speedy creation of custom foldable robots

Image credit: MIT CSAIL

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a system called “Interactive Robogami”, which allows users to design and 3D print custom origami robots from 2D designs in a single short session.

While robots are finding useful roles in every sector, working alongside non-roboticists in defence and domestic service, the design and creation of robots remains a profession for a highly skilled few.

Researchers based at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have taken steps towards making robotics design more accessible with the creation of a new system, Interaction Robogami. The new system lets anyone design and print a robot which can be quickly assembled.

Users are able to determine the robot’s movement (its gait) and body (its geometry), choosing from a library of over 50 different bodies, wheels, legs and “peripherals”.

As users select parts of their design, the system will offer feedback and suggestions to ensure that, for instance, the robot is able to move without toppling.

“Designing robots usually requires expertise that only mechanical engineers and roboticists have,” said Adriana Schulz, a PhD student at CSAIL, and co-lead author. “What’s exciting here is that we’ve created a tool that allows a casual user to design their own robot by giving them this expert knowledge.”

The robot is printed as flat faces connected at joints and the design can then be folded into the final shape, like an origami sculpture. According to the researchers, this combines the most effective aspects of 2D and 3D printing.

“3D printing lets you print complex, rigid structures, while 2D fabrication gives you lightweight but strong structures that can be produced quickly,” said Cynthia Sung, PhD graduate and co-lead author.

“By 3D printing 2D patterns, we can leverage these advantages to develop strong, complex designs with lightweight materials.”

Monkey robot

MIT CSAIL

Image credit: MIT CSAIL

The researchers tested the system by giving participants 20 minutes of training, then asking them to perform two tasks; to create a car design in ten minutes and to navigate a robot through an obstacle course efficiently. The participants took minutes to design their robots, between three and seven hours to print them and up to 90 minutes to assemble them, reducing printing time and amount of material by approximately 70 per cent.

The robots created in this experimentation demonstrated a range of creative movements, such as using a single leg to walk.

“You can quickly design a robot that you can print out and that will help you do these tasks very quickly, easily and cheaply,” said Sung. “It’s lowering the barrier to have everyone design and create their own robots.”

The PhD students and their professors hope that Interactive Robogami could be a step towards enabling large-scale customisation and production of robots – including flying robots – to help people with their everyday tasks.

The ancient Japanese art of origami –paper folding to create intricate sculptures – has served as the inspiration for other roboticists aiming to create robots which can rapidly assume new shapes. Harvard University researchers have created simple battery-free robots which can fold and unfold themselves, which could prove useful in surgery, while other CSAIL researchers have created tiny robots which can be swallowed within a capsule, then unfold themselves within the human body to patch up internal wounds.

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