No Assembly Required

A problem with many robots today is that they’re bulky. Transporting the robot can be a problem because it takes up a lot of space. Unfortunately, some scenarios require that the robot arrive at its destination fully assembled. For example, there isn’t anyone on Mars to put a robot that lands there together. I’ve been following a number of stories about robots that self-assemble or transform in some way, but the story Engineers Built an Origami Robot That Can Fold and Crawl Without Human Intervention provides a great overview of what’s happening with robotic science today.

The idea that a robot can fold itself up into a form that’s akin to a sheet of paper and then unfold itself into a useful shape is phenomenal. According to The Guardian, the robot could see use on the battlefield or in space. The accompanying video is pretty impressive. The feeling is one of an autonomous machine that can almost think its way through some basic problems. The robot need not actually start out flat though. A recent InfoWorld story tells of a robot that can transform between an I shape and a 3 shape. This robot is being used to explore the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant and the shape changes are necessary for the robot to move freely. An update to the story on ComputerWorld, tells that the robot still has a ways to go before the shape shifting works without problem.

Of course, these machines are thinking in a way. A Wired article helps you understand the thinking that goes into the design of the origami robot. (The details of the transforming robot aren’t available at this time, but it does have a tether to allow outside interaction—something the origami robot doesn’t need.) Luca’s and my upcoming book, Python for Data Science for Dummies, can help you understand the science and programming behind the artificial intelligence in these robots to an even greater degree. The point is that the origami robot demonstrates that software and good engineering are working together to turn an inexpensive 2D technology into a viable robot that could perform a wide variety of tasks. The point of the Wired article is that the technology is both cheap and easy—it doesn’t rely on anything exotic to make it work. Meanwhile, the transforming robot shows that these devices can work in extremely hazardous conditions that humans could never tolerate.

The sexy view of robots in the movies is full fledged human looking devices or monster construction machines of the sort found in I, Robot. The fact of the matter is that we may very well produce robots of that sort (we’re building them at this moment to act as caregivers), but we’ll also produce a great many robots of other types, such as these origami and transforming robots. Think more along the lines of Blade Runner, which contains a wide variety of robot types. Consider how robots might be used in the real world to perform mundane tasks. For example, the Roomba looks nothing like a robot. It sort of looks like a really big hockey puck.

How do you think the introduction of robots into society will go? Will we continue to see a vast assortment of odd looking robots or will they begin to take on more human characteristics? The future looks truly amazing, but I’d like to hear your point of view today. Talk to me about robotics at


3D Printed Buildings

Like most new technologies, 3D printing is going to go through stages where people scratch their heads and wonder whether the technology will really work for some purpose. Previous blog posts have covered a number of interesting uses for 3D printing. The story really began to take shape in Potential Commercial Uses for 3D Printing. Most of the uses in that post were a bit on the mundane side, but I really thought the use of 3D printing for horseshoes was one of those uses that would make people think. The point is, 3D printing is being used for an odd assortment of tasks at the moment and printing buildings seems to be just one more in a long series of what could be interesting uses.

The ComputerWorld article makes it plain that the technology is being used for this purpose in China. I’m almost certain that the building wouldn’t pass muster in this country (then again, I could be wrong and I’d love to hear from anyone who has an opinion on the matter). Attempts to research the article further haven’t produced much, so it looks like someone wrote it up as a special interest story and that’s the end of that. The point is that these ten buildings went up in just one day and used materials recycled from other buildings. The whole story reminds me of the scene in I Robot where a robot comes and tears down a building, presumably so that another could be put in its place. At some point, 3D printing of this sort could make it possible for robots to demolish and build custom abodes for anyone who needs one in a fraction of the time and cost that buildings require today.

Where do you think that 3D printing will go in the future? Is it possible that the Star Trek version of the future will really take shape in the form of 3D printing. Of course, in Star Trek the replicator was simply another type of transporter, but 3D printing seems like a more concrete manifestation of the technology to me. Let me know your thoughts at