For years, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have been working with 3D printing and robotics, making robots 3D printed in one step and 3D printed robots that can put themselves together. Now, they’ve come up with a unique system for non-experts to design custom 3D printable robots in one sitting. It’s called Interactive Robogami, and simplifies the process, letting users design origami-inspired robots from 2D designs in minutes, and 3D print and assemble the robots in as little as four hours.
3D printing has helped many industries start to move away from traditional forms of manufacturing, but existing design tools still have limitations in terms of motion and space, along with an often steep learning curve. Interactive Robogami, which looks pretty different from the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab’s Robogami, is much more intuitive, using simulations and interactive feedback with algorithms for design composition. The system also lets designers choose both the robot’s shape (geometry) and movement (gait), which are typically separated in design systems.
Adam Conner-Simons, with MIT CSAIL, told 3DPrint.com, “The robots are very unique-looking and almost claymation-like, since they were inspired by origami art and designed from 2D materials (paper, plastic, etc.).”
The CSAIL researchers published a paper on the Interactive Robogami system in the International Journal of Robotics Research, titled “Interactive Robogami: An end-to-end system for design of robots with ground locomotion.”
“Designing robots usually requires expertise that only mechanical engineers and roboticists have. What’s exciting here is that we’ve created a tool that allows a casual user to design their own robot by giving them this expert knowledge,” said Adriana Schulz, a PhD student and co-lead author.
The paper was co-led by PhD graduate Cynthia Sung, with MIT professors Daniela Rus and Wojciech Matusik; other co-authors include PhD student Andrew Spielberg, former master’s student Wei Zhao, former undergraduate Robin Cheng, and Columbia University professor Eitan Grinspun, now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Expeditions in Computing Program.
The abstract reads, “We have developed Interactive Robogami, a tool for composition-based design of ground robots that can be fabricated as flat sheets and then folded into 3D structures. This rapid prototyping process enables users to create lightweight, affordable, and materially versatile robots with short turnaround time. Using Interactive Robogami, designers can compose new robot designs from a database of print-and-fold parts. The designs are tested for the users’ functional specifications via simulation and fabricated on user satisfaction.”
Users start the design process by checking out a library of 50 different robotic bodies, limbs (legs and wheels), and “peripherals.” They can also see multiple different gait options, and once they choose all of the features, the system then analyzes factors like stability and speed to guarantee that the chosen design is possible. The system will make suggestions if necessary, so there are no issues with the robot, such as it being so top-heavy that it tips over when it tries to move.
Research scientist Moritz Bächer, who works at Disney Research and was not involved with the CSAIL project, said, “This tool enables rapid exploration of dynamic robots at an early stage in the design process. The expert defines the building blocks, with constraints and composition rules, and paves the way for non-experts to make complex robotic systems. This system will likely inspire follow-up work targeting the computational design of even more intricate robots.”
Because the design is inspired by origami, the 3D print and fold technique means printing the design as flat faces that are connected at the joints. Then, the design is folded into its final shape.
“3D printing lets you print complex, rigid structures, while 2D fabrication gives you lightweight but strong structures that can be produced quickly. By 3D-printing 2D patterns, we can leverage these advantages to develop strong, complex designs with lightweight materials,” Sung explained.
The CSAIL team tested the system by choosing eight subjects, training them for 20 minutes, and then asking them to complete two tasks. The first was to create a mobile, stable car design in ten minutes, and the second had the subjects taking a robot design and creating a trajectory to safely navigate it through an obstacle course as quickly as possible. The team itself made six robots, and each one took only 10-15 minutes to design, 3-7 hours to print out, and 30-90 minutes to assemble, which equaled a net reduction of 73% for printing time and 70% for the amount of material used.
Sung said, “You can quickly design a robot that you can print out, and that will help you do these tasks very quickly, easily, and cheaply. It’s lowering the barrier to have everyone design and create their own robots.”
The robots that CSAIL fabricated demonstrated a large range of movement, including the simultaneous use of legs and wheels, using single legs to walk, and with different step sequences. The team’s current robotic system focuses only on designs that are able to walk, but a future goal is to include designs for robots that can fly. In addition, the team also hopes that eventually a user will be able to go into the system and define a robot’s behavior so it centers around the types of tasks it will be asked to perform.
“These tools enable new approaches to teaching computational thinking and creating. Students can not only learn by coding and making their own robots, but by bringing to life conceptual ideas about what their robots can actually do,” said Rus.
She hopes that one day, people will be able to use robots to help with everyday tasks, though we’re already seeing evidence of these high-tech helpers, and that large-scale customization and production of robots will be possible with more systems like Interactive Robogami that employ rapid printing technologies. Discuss in the Interactive Robogami forum at 3DPB.com.