Oct 2, 2015 | By Kira

Recently, we learned that folding and unfolding structures, such as those found in nature or origami techniques, offer unique applications in space exploration, foldable batteries, biomedical devices and more. Furthermore, scientists have developed a way to 3D print self-folding structures that can be shipped flat, and then self-assemble on location when exposed to heat. In the future, these origami-style robots are predicted to be key contributors in the fields of robotics, nanorobotics and biotechnoloy—imagine tiny flat robots that could enter your body, self-deploy into surgical tools, and then dissolve into your bloodstream—but today, they have the potential to enter our classrooms, teaching kids and absolute beginners how to code. 

Researchers at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab have developed a free software tool called popupCAD that allows beginners with little-to-no programming experience to design and build their own foldable laminate robots and machines. The models can then be 3D printed on plastic (or paper) with electronic components printed on top, and deployed in real-life. The website includes tutorials for the software's editor and sketcher features, SOLIDWORKS exports, as well as basic origami principles, coding script samples, and the full API. The project is the result of a collaboration between the Microrobotics Lab’s Rob Wood, the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Dan Aukes, a post-doctoral researcher in Wood’s lab who has spent two years developing the software.

Image via Dan Aukes

“What this is, is just an easy way to make very cool robots,” said Aukes. He was initially inspired to get into robotics and programming after joining a contest in high school, and has followed his passion to one of Harvard’s most prestigious labs. “The motion of those devices to me is one of the most engaging things about robots,” he said. “That’s what got me into what I’m doing today.”

With popupCAD’s ease of use, the team is hoping that Auke’s enthusiasm can spread to younger generations. More and more schools, from elementary up to colleges, are beginning to integrate 3D printers into their classrooms and curriculums. Some public libraries also offer basic 3D printing services for incredibly low prices.

Aukes and Wood hope that high schools and universities can take advantage of popupCAD’s free service to teach students how to build basic but functional prototype robots. While robotics is seen as intimidating by those without experience, once they see how easy and rewarding it is, they might be tempted to give more complex coding a try.

So far, a group of Harvard design students in the ‘Informal Robotics’ course has been the first outside the lab to test the software. They were able to build origami robots models that crawled, rolled, and walked on their own.

Harvard Graduate School of Design

As for Wood and his team, they are focused on breaking new ground with small machines—we’re talking the size of a housefly—that could operate as a swarm. “The first point of the software was the give roboticists in the lab the ability to build robots faster,” said Aukes. Easier, faster…at this rate, the origami and 3D printing technology approach is breaking down the barriers for people of all skill levels to access robots.

In order to promote the new software and get as many new would-be-roboticists engages, popupCAD is hosting a contest this fall, offering cash prizes to the top robotic designs by students, designers, and engineers. The design must use popupCAD’s software, and groups are encouraged to apply for funding to 3D print their models and bring them to life.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications





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