Robots Take Shape by Folding Up Like Origami Figures

Small robots were made that take shape by folding up just like origami figures. The robots are made of paper and embedded electronics and each robot includes a battery. They start out flat and, when directed, will fold up to have legs that can walk.

This new robotic technology was developed by scientists in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and also by scientists in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They reported the successful creation and deployment of these origami-like robots in the journal Science.

The robots start out as a flat sheet and the type of embedded electronics used allows for autonomous transformation into a 3-D structure that is functional. These robots are said to be origami-like because, in origami, a flat sheet of paper is folded many times in a precise way to create a detailed 3-D structure. The key to the new design is embedded hinges that do not need external tools or energy to bend. Heat that is produced in the circuitry causes a polymer to create a fold according to the preset hinges. When the object cools, it stiffens and the robot is ready to work.

Known computation origami shapes were used in the design. The robot is able to fold up in four minutes and the assembly is completely autonomous and self-controlled. The cost for producing an origami-like robot is about $100. The robots could be called “disposable” because of their low cost and the types of materials they are made from.

It is exciting to imagine what these robots could be used for, and the possibilities are likely endless. Certainly, emergency situations that require retrieving something or activating something under dangerous conditions are on the top of the list. There are many situations where humans cannot enter because of toxic gases, danger of explosions or triggering consequential actions. These origami-like robots could be used to carry out the task instead of a human. They could also be used for more covert operations. They could be hidden and be unobservable while flat but then spring to life at just the right moment to take care of a problem or retrieve some information. The robots could be used in space. These robots are light weight and inexpensive and could be easily transported cargo on a space flight to the International Space Station or even to Mars.

A less serious application, but potentially very lucrative application, would be in the development of toys for children. The favorite toy for boys a while back was Transformers, which were cars that had moveable parts that could be pushed around to change the car into a muscle-bound action man. Creating a new toy that would transform itself into a new shape would likely be fascinating to kids, although their desire to intervene and move the parts themselves might mean that the toy was short lived.

There will certainly be many useful things that these robots that can take shape by folding up origami style will do in the future. Maybe they will act like household pets in the future and bring joy without any of the work, or maybe they will be used to transport household objects around the house. In the future world of drones and self-folding robots, one may only need to command and the wish may be fulfilled.

Opinion by Margaret Lutze

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