To the average person, robots are still somewhat abstract: machines that operate in isolation in academic labs, factories or overseas for the military. The idea of the family robot, like the icon Rosie who bustled about doing everyday tasks on The Jetsons, is on par with the elusive jetpack, still something of a futuristic “maybe someday.”
Cynthia Sung, Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), is looking to change that. Her research is making robot design and fabrication simpler, with the goal of getting to the point where anyone can make one.
“Robotics technology has huge potential to make people’s lives easier,” says Sung. “However, if robots are hard to use or hard to obtain, that potential will never be realized. We have already seen how robots have revolutionized manufacturing plants, space or deep sea exploration, and even disaster relief. It is not science fiction to say that they can similarly change our everyday lives.
Robots integrate mechanical, electronic, and computational subsystems into physical devices that perform complex tasks ranging from autonomous navigation and manipulation to cooperative and social interactions. Sung became interested in robotics as a high school student when she followed the activities of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity as they were launched and landed on Mars. “Around the same time,” says Sung, “my school started its first robotics team, and as a part of the team, I realized that robots were also technically interesting, and that they had broader applications than just space. That is probably when I first actively decided that I wanted to be a roboticist as a career.”
Through the development of a unique robotics platform, Sung aims to provide designers with intuitive computer-aided tools for creating customized robots and behaviors.
Drawing on research at the intersection of computational geometry, data-driven methods, and rapid fabrication techniques, Sung’s approach has a decidedly low-tech inspiration. Reminiscent of the sculptures produced through multiple folds and creases in paper, her robots look like they would be more at home on an arts-and-crafts table than a factory floor.
Sung earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University and completed a doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her research focused on intuitive tools for robot design. It was at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory where Sung’s “print-and-fold” paradigm of manufacturing took root.
“I have been folding origami since I was 10,” she says. “My mother taught me, and my favorite piece was always the flapping crane, because you could do more than just look at it once it was done, so I already knew intuitively that fold patterns had robotic potential.”
“When I entered the doctoral program, my advisor, Daniela Rus, and Cagdas Onal, who was a postdoc at the time, were just starting to look at how folding could be used for faster fabrication,” Sung recalls. “It seemed natural to me that I should combine my two interests, origami and robotics, to do foldable robot research.”