Penn Joins MIT-led Project on ‘Printable Robots’

PHILADELPHIA — The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University are taking part in an ambitious new project, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to reinvent how robots are designed and produced.

Funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project will aim to develop a desktop technology that would make it possible for the average person to design, customize and print a specialized robot in a matter of hours.

“Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer,” said Vijay Kumar, deputy dean for education in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, who is leading the team from Penn. “It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools.”

Engineering professors Sanjeev Khanna and Insup Lee and associate professor Andre DeHon will join Kumar on the five-year project called An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines.

“This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots and could have a profound impact on society,” said MIT professor Daniela Rus, leader of the project and a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots.”

It currently takes years to produce, program and design a functioning robot, and it is an extremely expensive process, involving hardware and software design, machine learning and vision and advanced programming techniques. The new project would automate the process of producing functional 3-D devices and allow individuals to design and build functional robots from materials as easily accessible as a sheet of paper.

“Our vision is to develop an end-to-end process, specifically, a compiler for building physical machines that starts with a high level of specification of function and delivers a programmable machine for that function using simple printing processes,” Rus said.

Researchers hope to create a platform that would allow an individual to identify a household problem that needs assistance and then head to a local printing store to select a blueprint from a library of robotic designs and customize an easy-to-use robotic device that could solve the problem. Within 24 hours, the robot would be printed, assembled, fully programmed and ready for action.

By altering the way in which machines can be produced, designed and built, the project could have far reaching implications for a variety of fields.

"This project aims to dramatically reduce the development time for a variety of useful robots, opening the doors to potential applications in manufacturing, education, personalized health care and even disaster relief,” said Rob Wood, an associate professor at Harvard.

Currently, project researchers are focusing their research in several areas: developing an application programming interface for simple function specification and design, writing algorithms that would allow for control of the assembly of a device and its operations, creating an easy-to-use programming language environment and designing new, programmable materials that would allow for automatic fabrication of robots.

Thus far, the research team has prototyped two machines for designing, printing and programming, including an insect-like robot that could be used for exploring a contaminated area and a gripper that could be used by people with limited mobility.

“It’s really exciting to think about the kind of impact this work could have on the general population -- beyond just a few select people who work in robotics,” said associate professor Wojciech Matusik, also a principal investigator at MIT’s CSAIL.

The NSF’s Expeditions in Computing program funds high-level, innovative research projects in computer science. Three other Expeditions projects have been funded this year, including one on computer-assisted programing led by Penn’s Rajeev Alur.