Print-your-own-robots developed in US

Robotic gripper A robotic gripper was built to show what the project could be capable of

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Printed-on-demand robots might be a reality before the end of the decade if a US-based project achieves its goals.

Researchers aim to build a desktop technology that would allow an average person to design and print a machine within 24 hours.

The team says that making it easier to create specialised robots could have a "profound impact on society".

The effort is being funded by a $10m (£6.3m) grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Virginia-based organisation described the move as a "game changing investment".

"It has the potential to democratise and personalise automation to meet the needs of individual users - whether for search and rescue workers in remote areas of the world or educators in classrooms around the US - possibilities for social impact abound," said spokeswoman Lisa-Joy Zgorski.

Next generation tech

The five-year project involves robotics experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The team members admit it would be unrealistic to hope to have created a "universal robot-making machine" within that time limit.

However, they intend to have developed a computer program which would allow users to specify certain characteristics - such as the ability to navigate an environment or manipulate certain types of object. This would then create computer manufacturing files which would act as a recipe for a number of machines to build a robot from scratch with minimal human interaction.

In recent years printers capable of making 3D plastic models have dropped in price making them available to hobbyists. The research team hope their work will take the development to another level.

"We think of printing as a broad class of techniques which are inherently accessible and relatively cheap," Prof Rob Wood from Harvard University told the BBC.

"3D printers are becoming more accessible but we want to go beyond that to create robots that encompass multiple functionalities, that have electrical and mechanical components, controllers and microprocessors. That's something that goes beyond today's state-of-the-art printers."

Democratising robotics

Longer term, Prof Wood said he hoped the research would pave the way for one-stop-shop machines that can "spit out" a robot at home or at the future equivalent of a photocopy store for less than $100 a piece.

His colleague Prof Daniela Rus, from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, added that this could lead to the creation of a community of users who would share designs and experiences.

"Building on our philosophy that if you can imagine it you can build it, we believe this project has enormous potential for broader impacts in education, manufacturing, healthcare, and everyday life," she said.

"Imagine a world in which printed functional objects are as common as printed paper.

"We will enable the rapid creation of tooling for manufacturing, and fast reconfiguration of assembly lines. Custom robot hands will bring a new level of flexibility to people confined to wheelchairs, allowing them to reach for objects on shelves or floors, and inexpensive project kits in the classroom. "

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