US researchers unveil Robogami - origami-inspired robots
Interactive Robogami is based on a database of robot parts which users can combine together like a “virtual Lego set.”

A collaborative effort between the University of Pennsylvania, MIT’s Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and Columbia University has produced Interactive Robogami, a virtual tool for designing bespoke robots.  

It’s not often that two disciplines as seemingly unrelated as robotics and origami come together to create something useful. But that’s exactly what a team of researchers from across the US has managed with Interactive Robogami.

Using a database of robot parts, the team an virtually construct unique robots and test them for workability before sending the designs to a 3D printer. The stated aim of the project is to “democratize the design and fabrication of robots, enabling people of all skill levels to make robots without needing expert domain knowledge.”

Read more: Robot tax could ease drawbacks of automation

Democratizing robotics with robogami

A roboticist at Penn State, Cynthia Sung, points out that the simplicity of Robogami gives it the potential to be a tool in educational and real-world environments.

“What we want to do in the future is make sure that these robots that we can design are actually useful to people,” she says. “That requires looking at the dynamics of the robot, doing real dynamic simulations in environments that approximate the real world and looking at things like sensing and feedback control.”

She says that the main goal of the project is to allow people who are not experts in robotics to easily design custom robots in an intuitive manner. These could be used to solve a particular problem in the workplace on the fly or as a way to teach people about autonomous systems and 3D printing.

“We’re envisioning a future where robotics is going to be deeply integrated into society,” says Sung. “This sort of research allows people to customize those robots to their own needs. So instead of relying on mass produced robots that serve only particular purposes, these sorts of systems allow people to make sure that the tools that they’re using are particular to their specific applications.”

“In the future, when people need access to these robots, they’ll be able to create them on their own without having to rely on engineers working for years to create them for them.”

Read more: MIT Media Lab unveils autonomous construction platform

Ancient art of paper folding

The team of researchers has attempted to devise a system that simplifies the process of building a robot. Just as a few folds in a piece of paper can lead to the creation of all manner of animals, Robogami’s software means that bespoke robots are only ever a few clicks away.

The system uses a database of draggable parts and handles all the complex calculations and geometry to suggest possible gaits for the robot and ensure its smooth motion. The final product can be simulated before fabrication.

Once the design is completed, the system offers a full plan to make the robot a reality. As well as sending a file to the 3D printer, it will suggest a list of electronic parts users need to connect together, before creating the software required to operate the robot.

“Within a few hours,” Sung says, “users will be able to print the robot, assemble it and have it walking around on their desk.”

Read more: Consumers welcome workplace AI & robotics, says ARM