We were promised robots. The future, science fiction told us, would be a world swarming with automatons that did all the jobs we didn't want. But you know what? Robots are really expensive and hard to build. Two MIT scientists want to change all that with inkjet printers and techniques borrowed from origami.

MIT robotics experts Ankur Mehta and Daniela Rus recently published a paper that describes a system for designing and building print-and-fold robots. That's 2D printing, too, not 3D printing. Their process "uses cheap and easily available software and hardware tools and raw materials, making [building robots] accessible to a casual hobbyist." It's an almost utopian pursuit. Imagine if we could use a simple computer program to draw out the plans for a robot that you could print onto a thin sheet of plastic, then fold into a three-dimensional machine. Just add an engine!

In truth, it's slightly more complicated than that right now. Mehta and Rus's system depends on simple Python scripts that automate parts of the design process. There are special chunks of code to generate cube shapes and tendril shapes and beam shapes. You do have to know a little bit about code to design an entire robot, though. This system is a start, though. "To bring personalized robots into the homes of the general public," the authors write, "the complete design process needs to be reworked." And it has been.


This is only the beginning, though. Mehta and his team were just awarded a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Maybe we'll get that robot-powered future after all. [MIT via Inventor Spot]

Images via MIT