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AFTER HOURS
Get Ready To Build Your Own Robot
Posted April 3, 2012
Get Ready To Build Your Own Robot
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By Barry Levine. Updated April 3, 2012 1:08PM

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It's the 21st century. Shouldn't we be able to design and print our own robots? MIT and other research universities think so.

A five-year project led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, funded by a $10 million National Science Foundation grant, is developing a desktop technology that would allow the average person to design, customize, and print their own robot, for a specific purpose, in hours. The team also includes researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

'Next Level' of App Store

Professor Daniela Rus, the project head and a principal investigator at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, told news media that the research project was intended to provide "a whole new way of thinking" about robot-making. She said it had "the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots."

Rus added that "this is taking the app store to the next level."

Currently, robot-making is a time-consuming and expensive process, often taking years to design hardware and software and then to manufacture a moving machine. The intent of this project, entitled "An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines," is to automate the process and make it easy.

To accomplish that, the research project will create a robot-making platform that contains an end-to-end process. Rus said that this specifically involves "a compiler for building physical machines that starts with a high level of specification of function."

In the researchers' vision, a person would start with a household problem that needs robotic assistance. A trip to a local printing store would involve the selection of a blueprint for a specific robotic design, from a library of such designs. The user could customize the design, utilize a 3-D printer to create the components, and then assemble the finished robot.

'Smart Materials'

The first steps to making that scenario a reality include the development by the research team of an application programming interface that allows for basic specification and design of functions, algorithms for device control, an easy-to-use programming language, and new "smart materials" that would enable automatic fabrication, in part by integrating control systems into the materials.

The research team believes that the project could result in a dramatic reduction in the resources and knowledge needed to create a useful robot, and could have applications in personal health care, manufacturing, education, disaster relief and other areas. Among other uses, the researchers also said that they are interested in providing the technology to children, in order to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

To date, two prototype robots have been created -- an insect-like robot that might be used for investigating contaminated areas, and a robot that can grip objects, which could become a tool for people with physical limitations. The team said each of those robots cost under $100 in materials.

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