The robots are coming. Advances in robotic production and artificial intelligence are moving humanity progressively closer to the sentient beings of science fiction lore. Google, the giant corporation in this scenario, has bought 12 emerging robotics companies in the past year, secreting the technology away to experiment with in a lab somewhere in the depths of Googleplex.

Google’s quest to create a real-life Android may sound a bit too close to the dystopian beginnings of “The Matrix,” “The Terminator” or “I, Robot” for comfort, but on the other end of the spectrum is an open-source robotics movement aiming to bring cheap, accessible robotic software and hardware to the world.

The Poppy Project is an open-source humanoid platform with child-sized proportions, designed by the Bordeaux, France-based Flowers Laboratory, in conjunction with the  Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation and ENSTA ParisTech. What began as a research project to study human development and motor skills evolved into Poppy: a humanoid platform consisting of an open-source Python library and framework along with 3D-printed modular hardware, designed to provide an affordable and hackable robot for science, education and art.

(Related: An educational robot programming language)

“Open source both for the skeleton and software is especially attractive because it’s made so that people can hack it, transform it, improve it,” said Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, research director and founder of the Flowers Lab. “There is no entry barrier to get your hands on these technologies.”

“We created the Poppy humanoid robot initially to study the properties of the legs, of the vertical column in balancing and dynamic walking, and then very quickly we also decided to make this robot open source,” Oudeyer said. “We wanted to share with other labs around the world in a community of science, so that not only could other labs reproduce what we’re doing, but they can use the tools we’ve developed for their own research projects so they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Prototype Poppy
The Poppy Project began three years ago as a product of the 3D printing boom. Oudeyer explained that traditional manufacturing techniques made the creation and, more importantly, the continued innovation of a humanoid robot prohibitively costly and time-intensive, but the arrival of 3D printing allowed the members of the FLOWERS (FLOWing Epigenetic Robots and Systems) team to print, assemble and improve their robot design at a rapid pace.

Poppy’s hardware, designed primarily by FLOWERS team member and Ph.D. student Matthieu Lapeyre, allows for assembly in two to three days, with the sum of its parts costing about US$10,000.