Scientists are getting closer to 3D-printed, self-assembling robots

MIT researchers have built printable robotic components

Want a robot that you can print and then watch it assemble itself? If so, a group of scientists from MIT may have something for you.

Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, says her research team has made progress in the promise of 3D printed robots.

Rus is set to announce her research in what she calls bakeable robots at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong this weekend.

The team has built printable robotic components that, when heated, automatically fold into three-dimensional configurations, according to MIT. The researchers also have figured out how to build electrical components, like resistors, inductors, and capacitors, as well as sensors and actuators -- from these self-assembling materials.

The components are the electromechanical "muscles or building blocks that enable robotic movements."

By figuring out how to create 3D-printed electrical components needed in a robot, scientists have taken a significant step toward being able to print an entire working robot.

"We have this big dream of the hardware compiler, where you can specify, 'I want a robot that will play with my cat,' or 'I want a robot that will clean the floor,' and from this high-level specification, you actually generate a working device," Rus said in a statement. "So far, we have tackled some subproblems in the space, and one... is this end-to-end system where you have a picture, and at the other end, you have an object that realizes that picture."

Shuhei Miyashita, a post-doctoral student in Rus' lab and a member of her research team, said they have taken a major step toward printable, self-assembling robots by devising a technique for precisely controlling the angles at which a heated sheet folds. By sandwiching a sheet of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) between two films of a rigid polyester riddled with slits of different widths, the PVC contracts when heated and the slits close, the university explained.

The researchers explained that a slit in the top polyester film, along with another, narrower slit parallel to it in the bottom film will cause the entire sheet to bend downward until the bottom edges meet.

"You're doing this really complicated global control that moves every edge in the system at the same time," said Rus. "You want to design those edges in such a way that the result of composing all these motions, which actually interfere with each other, leads to the correct geometric structure."

MIT researchers say new algorithms and electronic components could enable printable robots that self-assemble when heated. (Video: MIT)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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