MIT’s Robogami lets you build custom 3D-printable robots from standard, folding parts

Flat-pack furniture made IKEA a global powerhouse, and the same principles may help create a new generation of robots. Interactive Robogami is a project from MIT that lets users create ambulatory robots from a library of pieces that fold and fit together like origami.

“The goal is to make the process of designing robots accessible,” said Adriana Schulz, a PhD student at MIT who co-led the project. “The actuators, the materials, the code, things like that require a lot of knowledge. Our system encapsulates that expert knowledge, so the user can focus on conceptual design.”

Robogami lets users combine a library of intercompatible parts with primitives that can be printed like puzzle pieces and then folded and locked into shape. The flat-printed style reduces both print time and material cost by more than half.

It has a user-friendly GUI that has more in common with a game or 3D doodle app than a CAD or other design environment. You drag the pieces where you want them, arrange the type and placement of the feet or wheels and add any other features you think might be useful (or cool-looking). Then you can work out how and when those parts will move, what direction and so on.

Meanwhile, the app is doing all kinds of calculations in the background.

“One of the key things is that you can design geometry and motion at the same time. Normally that’s two different processes, but here you can change one and see how it affects the other,” said Schulz.

“The ordering of the how the legs move, the speed, these are all parametric structures,” she said. How they interact is systematized and you don’t have to worry about, for example, synchronizing motor torques or timing a foot’s touchdown — it’s being calculated internally. “The software maps these components into a full fabrication plan, from the mesh that goes to the 3D printer to the motors and code, the user doesn’t have to worry — it’s very end to end.”

For instance, if you decide to move the front legs back toward the center, the software calculates how that might affect when and how fast they move, or whether their motion would interfere with another piece. It watches for things like wobbliness, changes in orientation and center of gravity.

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It might sound a little like baby’s first robot kit, but it’s clearly a versatile tool. Robogami users of varying levels of familiarity with CAD and engineering tools took part in a handful of tests. “We were really surprised by the diversity of models people made,” Schulz told me. It took about 15-30 minutes to design a robot, a few hours to print it, then 30-90 minutes to assemble it.

The tool isn’t aimed at any population in particular, Schulz told me (other than “anybody”), but I thought this would make for an amazing couple of weeks in a high school or college engineering course, perhaps even earlier. Design your own little bots, print them overnight, assemble them to understand how the motors and chassis fit together, then race them or have them navigate obstacles.

Right now Robogami is just the subject of the researchers’ paper, now published in the International Journal of Robotics Research. But Schulz said the goal was to move beyond mere locomotion and into other tasks. “Empowering people to design complex things is difficult! But I think it would be exciting to create tools that lower design barriers for casual users.”

“These tools enable new approaches to teaching computational thinking and creating,” said Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s CSAIL and collaborator on the research, in a news release. “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.”