Bringing new meaning to 3-D printing, researchers at MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania are working on a hobbyist-oriented robotics platform to give amateur builders the tools to print, assemble, and program functional robots – some, perhaps, made out of ordinary paper.

“The project aims to transform manufacturing as dramatically as the personal computer democratized information technology and transformed how we communicate,” the team wrote.

The five year project aims to develop new robotics technologies, but also to reach – and encourage – a larger community of enthusiasts who don’t have specialized tools or finances to design and construct sophisticated robots on their own time. The team also hopes their research will be used in science and technology education.

“Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer,” said University of Pennsylvania team leader Vijay Kumar, in a press release. “It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools.”

Researchers are currently working on designs for the robots’ control mechanisms, algorithms to facilitate the assembly of the robots, and a language for enthusiasts to program the robots with. The tool set they envision would empower hobbyists to build, program, and use robots to do routine tasks in a fraction of the time it currently takes to see such a project through to completion.

“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,” said MIT faculty member Daniela Rus.

An image released by MIT shows an insect-like robot that appears to be built largely of folded paper stock. It’s not clear whether researchers imagine users printing robot parts on current-generation paper printers or if specialized equipment would be required.

The multi-university team includes experts in electrical engineering, theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, art and design.

“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 of MIT.

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