April 4, 2012 at 10:35 AM ET
Daniela Rus imagines it as a "Robot Kinko's." Say you're going away for a weekend and you're worried Fluffy will be bored while you're gone, so you want an automated cat-entertaining machine. You could go to the Robot Kinko's, where you could play with a program that lets you enter in a rough shape for the machine and enter parameters such as how many legs the machine should have. You're no robotics expert, but the program's own expertise and database of robot shapes would help you create a feasible design. A few days later, you could come back to the store to pick up your 3-D-printed robot. Beyond cat toys, custom-made robots could help people with household tasks, teachers give cool science lessons and disaster responders print out the tools they need on the fly.
That's the project Rus, a robotics researcher at MIT, and her research team officially started April 3, with the announcement that they've received $10 million from the National Science Foundation to develop their idea. These five-year grants are the single largest investment the foundation makes in computer science. The projects they fund are supposed to be difficult and far-reaching. That's true for this project, according to Rus. "This is a whole new way of thinking about manufacturing robots," she told InnovationNewsDaily.
Among the things she and her collaborators, from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, need to invent are ways to let amateurs easily program new actions into their robot. The programming platform needs to have safeguards because an average user won't know if certain commands might break their robot, wasting the money they just spent printing it. The researchers will need to develop materials that can vary in stiffness or other qualities that people might want to control. They'll need a way to automatically and simultaneously design all the components of a robot: its electrical wiring, its computing capability, and its mechanical design.
They've done little research yet, but they have created two small prototypes, one insect robot and one gripping pincer. As yet, there's no program for amateurs to design robots, so these were professionally designed. But once the researchers submitted their designs to a special printer they built, the designs took less than two hours to print, fold into 3-D shapes and assemble. Each robot cost less than $100 each, Rus said.
She thought of the project because she wanted to be able to make robots faster. Her students often use robots to test their ideas, but there's no science catalog for robots the way there are catalogs for glass beakers and lab goggles. Instead, computer science students need to build robots on their own, during which time they aren't thinking about the bigger science questions, Rus said.
Over the next five years, the research team hopes to have a working system where someone make requests such as "Map radon levels in my basement" or "Play with my cat," then get a robot at the push of a button, Rus said.