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A robot you can print out of paper? The future's here, and it's weird

A researcher at MIT has developed a way for anyone to print robots out of paper, provided they have a few simple electronic components worth about $20.

Ankur Mehta, one of the scientists behind the programme, published the group's findings in a paper entitled "An End-to-End System for Designing Mechanical Structures for Print-and-fold Robots".

In the paper, he claims that "the power of robotics comes from customizability in the system design," but that the difficulty and expense of creating robots has left the field of robotics confined "within a domain of experts."

"To bring personalized robots into the homes of the general public," Mehta writes, "the complete design process needs to be reworked."

To this end, he has worked with a team of researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) to develop a piece of software that can create a 2-dimensional cut-out of any design specified by the user.

So if you want a robot the size of a computer mouse with two wheels, or one the size of a lunchbox with four wheels, you can print it out on paper, rigid card or even vinyl, if you have the equipment.

The researchers involved hope to create a platform that would allow any individual to identify a household problem that needs assistance; then head to a local printing store to select a blueprint, from a library of robotic designs; and then customise an easy-to-use robotic device that could solve the problem.

Within 24 hours, the robot would be printed, assembled, fully programmed and ready for action to tackle the home-owner's needs.

The concept has also been tested with six-legged insectile robots (see the video below).

The software uses a number of Python scripts to take advantage of geometrical laws that allow any 3d shape to be made up of a 2-D net.

The resulting process is "intuitive, versatile, and extensible, allowing quick and easy design of sophisticated robot bodies," according to Mehta.

The team of researchers hopes that the new tool will be an affordable tool for robotics education, allowing people to explore new designs without spending on expensive materials.

The project has already garnered $10 million (£6.1 million) worth of funding in the form of a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and won the "Ultra Affordable Educational Robot Project 2014".

Currently, project researchers are focusing their research in several areas: developing an application programming interface for simple function specification and design, writing algorithms that would allow for control of the assembly of a device and its operations.

This would create an easy-to-use programming language environment, and designing new, programmable materials that would allow for automatic fabrication of robots.

The team hopes that its technology will "enable quantum leaps in the way young students learn about robotics by developing origami-inspired robot technologies to rapidly, inexpensively and easily produce functional robots to match high-level specifications."

Meanwhile, the US Navy is developing a line of creepily human-like androids in order to combat fire on board ships, dubbed the Shipboard Autonomous Fire-fighting Robot (SAFFiR), which they hope to test this summer.

Images: Dylan Love, Business Insider