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Printable robots in development

May 31, 2014
Courtesy of MIT
and World Science staff

En­gi­neers are work­ing on ro­bots that can be as­sem­bled from parts made by 3-D print­ers—and the new­est de­signs can be baked, too.

Although the work is pre­lim­i­nary, in two new pa­pers, re­search­er Dan­iela Rus of Mas­sa­chu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy and col­leagues dis­cuss print­a­ble ro­botic com­po­nents that, when heat­ed, au­to­mat­ic­ally fold in­to de­sired con­figura­t­ions. Rus’ group al­so pre­sented the re­sults at the In­terna­t­ional Con­fer­ence on Robotics and Au­toma­t­ion of the In­sti­tute of Elec­tri­cal and Elec­tron­ics En­gi­neers.

One pa­per de­scribes a sys­tem that takes a dig­it­al spe­cif­ica­t­ion of a 3-D shape, then gen­er­ates the two-di­men­sion­al pat­terns that would let a piece of plas­tic fold itself into that shape. The oth­er pa­per de­scribes how to build com­po­nents from self-fold­ing, laser-cut ma­te­ri­als. The re­search­ers show de­signs for the elec­tro­me­chanical “mus­cles” that en­a­ble ro­bot movements—com­po­nents known as re­sis­tors, in­duc­tors, and ca­pac­i­tors, sen­sors and ac­tu­a­tors.

“We have this big dream… 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… you ac­tu­ally gen­er­ate a work­ing de­vice,” Rus said. That’s a long way away. But some of in­i­tial work to­ward that al­so led to the crea­t­ion of “these folded elec­tron­ics,” she added. The pa­pers also build on re­search by Rus with MIT’s Er­ik De­maine ex­plor­ing how ori­ga­mi could be adapted to cre­ate recon­figurable ro­bots. 

The key dif­fer­ence in the new work, said Shuhei Miyashita, a post­doc­tor­al re­search­er in Rus’ lab and one of her co-authors on both pa­pers, is a tech­nique for pre­cisely con­trol­ling how a heat­ed sheet folds. Miyashita sand­wiches a sheet of pol­y­vi­nyl chlo­ride (PVC) be­tween two films of hard pol­y­es­ter full of slits of dif­fer­ent widths. When heat­ed, the PVC con­tracts, and the slits close. Where edges of the pol­y­es­ter film press up against each oth­er, they de­form the PVC.

But pro­duc­ing the slits is not as sim­ple as just over­lay­ing them on an ori­ga­mi crease pat­tern and ad­just­ing the widths ac­cord­ing­ly, Rus said. “Y­ou’re do­ing this really com­pli­cat­ed glob­al con­trol that moves eve­ry edge” at the same time, she said. The mo­tions “ac­tu­ally in­ter­fere with each oth­er,” which has to be tak­en in­to ac­count.


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Engineers are working on robots that can be assembled from parts made by 3-D printers—and the newest designs can be baked, too. While the work is still preliminary, in two new papers, researcher Daniela Rus of MIT and colleagues discuss printable robotic components that, when heated, automatically fold into desired configurations. Rus’ group also presented the results at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. One paper describes a system that takes a digital specification of a 3-D shape, then generates the two-dimensional patterns that would let a piece of plastic reproduce it through self-folding. The other paper describes how to build components from self-folding, laser-cut materials. The researchers show designs for the electromechanical “muscles” that enable robot movements—components known as resistors, inductors, and capacitors, sensors and actuators. “We have this big dream… 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… you actually generate a working device,” Rus said. That’s a long way away. But some of initial work toward that also led to the creation of “these folded electronics,” she added. Both papers build on research by Rus with MIT’s Erik Demaine exploring how origami could be adapted to create reconfigurable robots. The key difference in the new work, said Shuhei Miyashita, a postdoctoral researcher in Rus’ lab and one of her co-authors on both papers, is a technique for precisely controlling how a heated sheet folds. Miyashita sandwiches a sheet of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) between two films of hard polyester full of slits of different widths. When heated, the PVC contracts, and the slits close. Where edges of the polyester film press up against each other, they deform the PVC. But producing the slits is not as simple as just overlaying them on an origami crease pattern and adjusting the widths accordingly, Rus said. “You’re doing this really complicated global control that moves every edge” at the same time, she said.The motions “actually interfere with each other,” which has to be taken into account.