IEEE Spectrum – MIT has been given a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project aims to reinvent how robots are designed and produced by developing technology to allow an average person to create programmable robots in a matter of hours.
An insect-like robot designed and printed using new fabrication techniques developed by MIT researchers. Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT
This project envisions a future desktop technology that prints actual programmable hybrid electro-mechanical devices from simple descriptions on-demand, anywhere, and with performance one would expect from a team of professional engineers, using advanced materials. The project aims to transform manufacturing as dramatically as the personal computer democratized information technology and transformed how we communicate.
The technical approach builds on analogies with compiler technology and its support algorithmic theories. Experienced engineers may know from experience what is constructible but their experience must be expressed in a language that blends the continuous with the discrete, the cyber with the physics of materials processing. The project addresses broad classes of constructible cyber-physical systems: (1) the development of tools for functional specification and automated co-design of the mechanical, electrical, computing, and software aspects of the device; (2) the design of planning and control algorithms for the assembly of the device and for delivering the desired function of behavior, and tools for the analysis of these algorithms that take into account all the necessary resources, including actuators, sensors, and data streams from the world; (3) the methodology to generate device-specific and task-specific programming environments that provide safeguards for programs written by non-expert users to enable them to operate the machines safely; and (4) the development of novel approaches to the automated production of new devices which may be based on the synthesis of programmable materials with customizable electrical or mechanical properties. This research is highly multidisciplinary, primarily leveraging the disciplines of computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering, materials, and manufacturing science.
They’re currently developing an easy-to-use programming environment and testing new materials that would allow for automated fabrication of robot parts. Using these methods, the team has already built a few prototypes, including an insect-like robot, a self-contained soft robotic fish, and a small mechanical gripper.
Cagdas Onal, an MIT postdoc, explains that they’re using a material called PEEK, or polyether ether ketone, which he says has “good dimensional stability, laser machining properties, and thermal characteristics.”
To print the robots, the researchers are using a variety of custom planar fabrication techniques. “The robot bodies are fabricated by laser machining, and their custom flexible circuits are fabricated using regular printers and etching,” Onal says. “We use planar molds to create our soft robots from silicone rubber.”
The researchers are already able to place metal wiring on the body of the robots before they are folded. In the future, their goal is to incorporate all electronics — chips, sensors, power sources — into the printing process.
It remains to be seen whether robots fabricated with these new methods will scale in size and prove robust enough for real-world applications. However, the same was said years ago about 3D printing and rapid prototyping techniques, which are now ever more popular in both DIY and academic projects.