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Need A Robot For That? CMU-Developed Software Helps You Design & 3D Print Them

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor Stelian Coros shows off one of the first robots created using his software and a 3D printer.

CMU Robotics Institute assistant professor Stelian Coros was working to find ways to make animated characters navigate their simulated environments, such as in a video game or a movie, when he realized his work could be used to design and virtually test robots.

“And what I’m really excited about is moving towards a new paradigm where robots will be able to approach the complexity of biological structures in both form and in function,” Coros said. 

Typically, a robot is designed by engineers and a prototype is built and tested. That design is then sent back to the engineers to be redesigned and the process is repeated until the robot is ready to be sent to a manufacturing facility.

Coros said that expensive and time-consuming process works when the goal is mass production.

“In that case, the investment is worth it,” Coros said. “But I imagine a future where everyone will have a different type of robot that matches their own needs or preferences.”

The goal is customizable robots made for specific, and maybe even one-time uses, such as cleaning up a disaster site.

“You figure out what needs to be done and then you design the robot specifically for that environment, specifically for that task,” Coros said. “You press the ‘3D print’ button and then it will go out in the world, solve the problem it was designed for and then perhaps get recycled or something like that.” 

Coros and his team have created software that includes a design tool that replaces the engineers. It’s meant to be simple enough that anyone can use it, even non-engineers.

The software, which can run on a basic laptop computer, also includes a design testing system.

“We have developed a mathematical model that figures out how this design that you’re currently working on should move, such that it doesn’t fall down,” Coros said. “So you can visualize this motion … you can add another leg if you want, you can change the shape of the leg.”

That’ll enable a person to rely on the computer completely without having to fabricate a design and test it in the real world, Coros said. The user can also tweak the design as much – or little – as they prefer.

Eventually, he said he hopes the software will offer suggestions on how to make the design better. 

Once the blueprint is finalized, all one needs is to send the plastic parts to the 3D printer and order a few motors and cables, assemble them and you’ll have a working robot. The software even knows how to coordinate the motors to make the robot move as it was designed.  

Depending on the size of the robot and the speed of the 3D printer, Coros said it could take a few days to a week to make the robot. As printing technology improves, Coros said he imagines a day when it would take just a few hours to design, test, build and deploy a robot.

Most of the team’s work has been with robots about the size of a cat, but Coros said larger and smaller designs also work, it’s just a matter of getting the right motors and the right design.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • Google says it is intensifying its campaign against online extremism.  The company announced this week it will put more resources toward identifying and removing videos related to terrorism and hate groups. In a blog post the company said, “We, as an industry, must acknowledge that more needs to be done. Now." Anti-hate groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have been critical of Google and social media sites, saying they have done little to curtail hate groups online.  Google says it will nearly double the number of independent experts it uses to flag problematic content and expand its work with counter-extremist groups to help identify content that may be used to radicalize and recruit.
  • The music streaming company Pandora is selling some assets as part of its effort to compete against Spotify and other music services. Pandora has sold a 19-percent stake in its business to satellite radio company Sirius XM for $480 million. The company expects to come up with another $200 million by selling its Ticketfly service to Eventbrite. Pandora, which feeds users with songs it thinks they will like is believed to be shifting to the business model of competitors like Spotify and Apple Music that allow users to pick their own songs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report