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Harvard roboticist assembles corps of far-out machines

A swarm of mechanical flies. A sheet of material that folds itself into an insectoid robot and scampers off. A Gumby-like figure using thick limbs to crawl across the floor.

They’re not the stuff of Hollywood sci-fi — they’re real projects pursued by Robert Wood and his team of researchers. Wood, from Harvard University and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, presented at MIT’s recent EmTech event showcasing new technology. Each peculiar example represents a type of robotics that may someday be used in fields as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing and education.

Robots, Wood said, affect all of us — whether they welded the doors on the automobiles that take us to work or packaged the tuna we had for lunch. But those machines are tucked away on factory floors — and they’re so big and dangerous they have to be caged off, segregated from humans.

Harvard University’s Robert Wood presents his work on self-assembling robots at MIT’s recent EmTech event in Cambridge, Mass.

“If we want to think about robots that are going to be impacting our lives, we want to think about new opportunities for robots that are more capable of interacting with humans,” Wood said.

Mimicking Mother Nature

The first category he presented was small-scale robotics. Wood and his team looked to nature for inspiration. The tiny, beelike hoverfly is one model. But how can science imitate biology at such a scale? It wasn’t easy.

“There’s nothing off the shelf — there are literally no components that we can pull off the shelf to be used for a device like this,” Wood said. “So we have to reinvent the wheel for every individual component.”

And once they have the parts, there’s the challenge of piecing tiny wings and transmission systems together. There’s the manual way, what Wood called “the graduate student with tweezers approach,” but it’s labor-intensive and time-consuming — and researchers would be too conservative in the types of designs they might try out.

So Wood developed a new type of MEMS — that is, microelectromechanical systems, or the technology of tiny devices — that works much like a pop-up book. The components are placed in an apparatus and tiny devices inside do all the assembling. That way, the robots can be made much more quickly and efficiently. Using the same method, Wood can create machines with various types of locomotion, such as robot centipedes, which can take on treacherous terrain, and running robots that leave Olympic champion Usain Bolt in the dust.

The ultimate goals of Wood’s robo-insect army are, he admits, quite a few years away — but search-and-rescue missions and environmental exploration are possible uses, he said. And projects are now under way that are looking at using the devices in endoscopy, which examines the digestive tracts, and minimally invasive surgical procedures.

Return to the fold

The second category Wood presented is what he calls “printable robots,” named for the ease with which they can be assembled. Wood and his team used principles from computational origami, with the aim of creating low-cost, 3-D robots that can assemble themselves — and not just in high-tech labs but anywhere, including schools.

Wood showed a video of a flat sheet of material fixed with a pair of battery-sized motors. Pieces of it start folding in, until it lifts itself into something vaguely resembling a scorpion.

Soft robotics is the third category. It’s an emerging field that uses compliant materials to construct robots that “that go away from the paradigm of having rigid links and rotary joints and prismatic joints.”

Such pliable robots could work side by side with people without the risk of harming them. They can also be constructed of material that can withstand heat and flames, making them good candidates for venturing into hazardous situations like fires. And Harvard’s Conor Walsh is experimenting with soft robots that can be woven into clothing and worn to, say, help older people lift heavy objects.

A teachable moment

All three types of robotics can be used in education, Wood said, because, hey, kids like robots. When he takes his show on the road to schools all over the country, pupils are wowed.

“I would argue that that’s a very effective way to leverage the sort of science-fictionesque nature of the types of research that’s done in robotics for STEM education,” Wood said, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

And Wood was a kid once, too. He got his first robot when he was five. His name was Sir Galaxy, a child-friendly automaton with a two-way communicator that allowed an operator to speak into a remote and be heard through a speaker on the robot.

“I used to scare the hell out of my neighbor,” Wood said. “We used to drive it up to his front door and ring the doorbell and run away and talk through it. It was fun.”

Let us know what you think of the story; email Jason Sparapani, features writer, or find him on Twitter @jmsparapani.