Robots: Self Assembling and Custom Designed


Scientists at Harvard and MIT created robots that are self-assembling, and predict that in the future they will be custom designed. Engineers used the ideas of origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, a little of the Transformers movie, and even some technology from children’s toys.

The small robots begin with a little paper and plastic and, with the addition of tiny motors and batteries, rise up on four legs. Engineers theorize this type of small lightweight robots could explore dangerous places or even go to outer space.

The robots’ dimensions are about six inches by six inches, about two inches tall, and weigh less than three ounces. However, the same principles could work for smaller robots or those much larger. Each robot costs around $20 for laminated sheets of Shrinky Dinks and paper. The batteries and microcontrollers are another $80. The circuitry and motors are embedded in the sheets. Presently, it is very expensive to build robots, but this method has the advantage of being cheap, quick, and specialized.

Current is sent through the circuitry board which heats the polystyrene along the fold lines. These then contract, causing the joints to fold. Felton wanted to have the robots fold themselves to save time, so he and his team attached a minuscule microprocessor which tells each hinge when to fold into place. Once the robot has assembled itself, it is custom designed to scuttle on its four legs crab-like across the table.

Currently computer programs can design the folding pattern to create almost any arrangement. At Cornell University, designers are working with origami tessellations that could turn paper into a spring. If new creases are activated, it would change the spring’s design. The designers envision robots which would be re-programmable.

Last year, a Harvard University team built RoboBee by using origami-type techniques. Many engineers are working with soft robotics, which designs robots created with all flexible materials. This way the machines will have no difficulty moving into tight spaces.

Harvard University scientists were inspired by termites. Each insect is not even one centimeter in size and yet together they can build two story air-conditioned mounds with no leader or blueprint. They created small robots that can work together to construct buildings.

Sam Felton, a researcher from Harvard who published a paper in Science about self-assembling robots, foresees a day coming soon when robots will be custom designed. Daniela Rus of MIT, his co-author, says they anticipate a time when someone wanting a robot to, say, play with the cat, could go to a store and have one custom-designed. If a person wanted a robot to play chess, one could be designed to have that ability. Someday, the general population could have custom-designed robots made at a print shop with same-day service. Another MIT professor stated that this could bring a transformation in technology similar to the first 3D printers. He felt there would be many more people joining in, making small changes, until years from now “we will wonder why it took so long to get where we’ll then be with it.”

By Laurie Stilwell

The Washington Post
USA Today

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