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Research Plans: Robots Walking Out of a Printer Near You

By Charles Q. Choi

Roboticists are making and designing new machines faster than ever thanks to 3-D printers. And one day, average people might be able to do the same.

The world is witnessing groundbreaking advances in 3-D printers, which conjure items from blueprints using a growing variety of feedstock — plastic, ceramic, bone, glass, steel, titanium and even more unusual ingredients like sugarmashed potatoes, chocolate and living cells. The machines commonly work by laying down layers of material much like ordinary printers and then fusing it together with lasers, electron beams or binders.

Increasingly, researchers are also making robotic devices with 3-D printers, such as the Anthromod Mark 2 hand, a robotic hand whose components are 3-D printed, apart from the tendons. The aim is to help people construct parts for prosthetics or humanoid robotics, and its developer, Chris Chappell, is already working on a Mark 3 hand.

“In future, I would like to move beyond just providing research tools for others and start producing prosthetics and robotics that can be used practically by anyone,” Chappell says. “I would like the Anthromod mechanics, the software and the electronics to become the standard for when people want a prosthetic limb, a bomb disposal robot, or, dare I say, a sentient robot. I would love to continue using 3-D printing to manufacture most of the Anthromod parts, and foresee that I will.”

With 3-D printing, prototypes of robotics parts become much easier and cheaper to produce.

Inspired by nature

Some researchers are using 3-D printers to mimic a menagerie of animals. For instance, making wings for robots that flew by mimicking insects or birds was once a delicate, laborious affair that required days to complete. Now, using 3-D printers, roboticist Hod Lipson and his colleagues at Cornell University have reduced the time needed to design wings for mechanical flying insects to about an hour.

The sheer numbers of prototypes researchers can now print allow more chances to detect potential pitfalls earlier in development.

“All this 3-D printing is allowing much more exploration of the hardware side of robotics, not just the software,” Lipson says.

A Harvard University team created another zoologically inspired machine. They developed a rubbery octopus-like robot that is not only flexible enough to overcome obstacle courses that would likely hold back rigid metallic robots, but can also change color to camouflage itself like a chameleon. The machine is made from silicone and elastic plastics, and squirms around using compressed air forced in and out of many tiny channels running through its limbs. To alter its colors, researchers pump a variety of liquid dyes in and out of a separate layer of channels.

“We use 3-D printers to generate the molds that we need to fabricate our robots,” says Harvard’s Steve Morin. “We can have an idea, draw it up, print out the mold, and then, within a day, have a soft robot … The ability to rapidly create objects with a reasonably high level of precision, cheaply and repeatedly, is very powerful.”

Drexel University paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara aims to make 3-D printed robot dinosaurs. The idea is to conduct 3-D scans of dinosaur bones and create scaled-down replicas of these delicate fossils. Robots made using these models could help scientists test theories about how the extinct giants might have moved.

“We could model these limbs virtually on a computer, but simulations are only as good as the variable you think to introduce into them or have the capacity to deal with,” Lacovara says. “With 3-D printed models, you can test all the variables of the physical world whether you think to include them or not, so the results are more accurate in subtle ways you might not even understand.”

The researchers want to create robot versions of giant sauropods, the largest animals that have ever walked the Earth, by attaching artificial muscles and tendons onto 3-D printed bones to shed light on how their bodies might have behaved. They hope to have a working robotic dinosaur limb built by the end of 2012. A complete robotic dinosaur might take up to two years to create.

“We hope to use artificial muscles that are actuated by electrical currents on 3-D printed bones, and use artificial cartilage material as well, so we’ll have artificial limbs moved by artificial tissues, not just gears and pulleys,” Lacovara says. “We’ll then play around with different configurations of where to insert muscles and tendons and see what’s most efficient.”

Made-to-order robots at home?

One day, nonspecialists might be able to print out their own robots, researchers say. A new project led by MITand backed by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation is developing desktop programs that will enable anyone to design and print their own robots. The idea is for people to select customizable robot blueprints from a library of designs that might help them with household problems, such as grippers that can help people with limited mobility. They could then get the droids printed at nearby 3-D printing stores.

It may even be possible to print robots that walk right out of the printer, Cornell’s Lipson says. So far he and his colleagues can print nearly every part of a robot, save its motors and batteries.

“The real revolution for robotics is going to happen when 3-D printing reaches the stage where it can fabricate active systems as well as passive parts,” Lipson says. “As technology progresses, we’ll be able to print multiple materials at the same time, even conductive wires, sensors, actuators and batteries. That will unleash a huge new design space not even understandable at this point.”

He added: “My personal quest is to develop technology that allows robots to walk out of a printer. That’s going to be really difficult to do, but once that ability becomes commonplace, you’ll see an explosion of physical artificial lifeforms, new ideas for shapes of robots, new kinds of mechanisms we can’t even imagine right now.”

Top image: An insect-like robot printed and designed at MIT using the new process being developed to revolutionize the way robots are developed. The robot could be used for exploring areas inaccessible to humans. Photo courtesy Jason Dorfman/MIT.


Charles Q. Choi
 has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science and Nature, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents, including scaling the side of an iceberg in Antarctica, investigating mummies from Siberia, snorkeling in the Galapagos, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, camping in the Outback, avoiding thieves near Shaolin Temple and hunting for mammoth DNA in Yukon.

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