Euro Journal

Robot making machinery, and robots making themselves.

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Nisser’s goal is to make hardware more accessible by making it easy to build and customise.


A summer of billionaires in space has left many people wondering when their moment will come. Space travel is now prohibitively expensive for the common person, but Martin Nisser’s research could help change that. When it comes to ticket prices, his work on self-assembling robots could be a game changer.

Over the course of his life, Nisser has been fascinated by engineering. It took him a decade to make his way from Sweden to the United Arab Emirates, and then to Scotland for his undergraduate degree. His favourite subjects stayed the same no matter where he went to school. It’s always appealed to Nisser to use math and physics to create something concrete. Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor.

Nisser understood exactly what he wanted to invent by the time he finished his undergraduate degree. Because it was a multi-disciplinary project, his senior capstone project was the appropriate introduction to robots. This meant that we had to take everything we learnt in college and mix it to create something new. As he notes, “Robotics is a field in which multidisciplinarity is often crucial.

The development of space-ready robots:

A Harvard professor who supervised the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory persuaded Nisser to write his thesis at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory after Nisser discovered his interest for robotics in his master’s degree at ETH Zurich. It was part of his thesis to develop robots that could fold themselves into place. As Nisser points out, “we used a number of different materials, including shape memory polymers, which are smart materials that can be programmed to change their shape under different temperature circumstances. Thus, we were able to programme 2D multilayer sheets to fold in certain ways in order to obtain desired 3D structures.


Because of his experience with 3D printing and self-assembly, Nisser is now interested in examining how robots may be autonomously built utilising both methods. Er explains how the pursuit of this engineering goal opens up a vast range of academic possibilities. You’re always learning something new because of the multidisciplinary approach required to construct these complex systems – from mechanical and electrical engineering to computer science.” One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is when I can transfer techniques from one area to another, and do it with an entirely new perspective,” he says. “That’s when most intriguing things happen.”

Nisser conducted reconfigurable robot research at the European Space Agency before beginning his PhD. A Robotics and space-related project led him to discover that he could merge his interests in robotics and space. We are interested in structures that can self-reconfigure between smaller and larger configurations since any system launched into orbit has to fit within the limits of a rocket fire,” he explains. My interest in self-folding robotics was sparked by the possibility to build on what I’d learned. My algorithms allowed enormous numbers of spaceship modules to travel together, attach, and then reconfigure themselves into a goal shape.”

To continue exploring self-assembling in space, Nisser has joined the HCI Engineering Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where she is currently pursuing a PhD. Using a revolutionary 3D printing process tailored to the space environment, his team is able to manufacture new structures without the limits of gravity In a recent parabolic flight, he was able to feel weightlessness for numerous 20-second intervals. During the month of December, SpaceX will launch the project to the International Space Station for a 30-day research mission.

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