Flat-packed, foldable 3-D-printed robots could teach kids to code


Worker ants of the future will be dime-sized machines that start out as sheets of plastic, then bounce into shape folding along pre-cut grooves.

A handful of top robotics researchers are betting that this origami style of robot design – part flat-pack Ikea furniture, part pop-up birthday card – will be a key contributor to robotics in the future.

One leader in that game is Rob Wood, who leads the Microrobotics lab at Harvard University. His group has developed designs for tiny robots that are quick and cheap to make. And now his lab is unleashing the ability to build such machines into schoolrooms everywhere.


A new free software tool developed at the lab, popupCad, allows beginners with little programming or robot-building experience to model a pattern for a robot that can be folded into shape using origami principles.

The model is then printed on cheap plastic or paper, and electronic component are printed on top.


“What this is, is just an easy way to make very cool robots,” said Daniel Aukes, a post-doctoral researcher at Robert Wood’s lab who spent two years developing the software. Aukes first became smitten with programming when he joined a robotics contest in school.


A group of Harvard design students in the “Informal Robotics” course was the first outside the lab to use the software. Last fall, they built origami robot models that crawled, rolled, and walked. Though this cohort didn’t have the machine-shop training engineers typically get, they made their own machines.

With 3-D printers showing up in every school district and library, Aukes hopes high schools and universities will use PopupCad to build basic but functional prototype robots, which may tempt students to give coding a try.

“The motion of those devices to me is one of the most engaging things about robots,” Aukes said. “That’s what got me into what I’m doing today.”

When he arrived at the Wood lab, the team was just breaking ground on the ability to build small, lightweight machines that could operate as a swarm. “The first point of the software was to give roboticists in the lab the ability to build robots faster,” Aukes said. So far, the focus has been to miniaturize the complex electronic parts so that they fit on a machine the size of a housefly. The origami approach, the reasoning goes, breaks down barriers to access robots. You could conceivably print robots at will, with designs modified for specialized tasks, like scuttling across a table.

Now Aukes hopes other groups will give it a try. He is hosting a contest this fall and offering cash prizes for top designs that use popupCAD to design robots.

Students, designers, engineers are all invited to participate. Groups can apply for funding to 3-D print their models. The winner takes home $2,500; two others will be awarded second and third prizes of $1,500 and $1,000 each.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Facebook