Origami: The New Inspiration for Robotics


Origami is now the new inspiration for robotics.  Samuel Felton, a graduate student at Harvard, has designed the first self-folding robot.  Designed with paper, batteries, and Shrinky Dinks (polystyrene plastic), the robot is cost efficient and light weight.  However, it is not made of a single sheet of paper, but many sheets formed together to create the technique.  The Shrinky Dinks are one of the most essential parts to the design as they react to the heat of the on board heater, which allows the robot to form itself and take shape.  “When it tries to shrink, it pulls on the paper and causes it to fold over,” Felton said.  As it moves, it works on electrical signs as it utilizes origami and electrical engineering.

It only takes four minutes for the robot to piece itself together as beings to crawl away.  With human assistance done away with, there is a possibility that this technology could be used on space explorations.  One possible idea is to use this technology to create self-assembling satellites.  The think tank of the robot is a microcontroller.  Being so small, it is easily transportable anywhere and does not require a vast amount of space.  Since it features a different technology then modern phones and cars, this represents the future of tech.  The nice thing about this process is that, in the future, robots could be made on the same day they are ordered and at a fraction of the current cost.  “Today, it takes many years and lots of money to make a robot. We may be able to reduce design time to a matter of hours,” Daniela Rus said, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

This process is essential for small components as it is simpler to fold smaller parts out of paper than create them out of other materials, such as metal, which is part of the new origami inspiration.  With origami folding and mathematics, it is possible for computers to generate the patterns needed to create more complex designs for robots and robotic engineering.  The understanding is that origami folding changes materials that have a flat surface, like paper, to have a stiff or even movable property.  This kind of technology is already seen used in projects such as satellites, cardiac stents, and air bags.  “If you use origami, it is possible to have additional features that current materials don’t have,” Zhong You said, a structural engineer at the University of Oxford in U.K.

Next week, Felton plans to present a self-folding cube.  This technology has been built on previous experimentations.  Before they created an inch-worm, a lamp, and the traditional Japanese origami crane, however each one required human assistance.  This process works because the heat activated material, polystyrene plastic, shrinks and causes the shape to take form.  It also holds the memory of the shape in the pattern.  The problem that they faced was the placement of the origami folds to generate the desired pattern.

Even though this new origami robotic process seems surprising, it is similar to other processes that occur in everyday life and is inspiring.  “We all began life as a single sheet of cells that fold to create complex organs,” Michael Tolley said, a member of Felton’s research team at Harvard.

By Jordan Lewis


The New York Times

The Wall Street Journal

NBC News

USA Today

Your Thoughts?