Engineers Built an Origami Robot That Can Fold and Crawl Without Human Intervention

This just might be how Transformers are born.

Researchers at Harvard created self-assembling “origami” robots that start out flat but can fold themselves into 3-D shapes to carry out their designed purposes.

“Origami robots” can fold themselves from a flat configuration and then carry out tasks. (Image source: Seth Kroll, Harvard University/Wyss Institute)

The robots consist of layers of flat material — some rigid and others constructed from heat-shrinking polymers — that cause the robot to unfold when warmed up by heating elements embedded in the polymer, according to the Tech Times.

"Origami robot" developed that can unfold itself from a flat configuration and then carry out tasks. Harvard and MIT researchers envision many uses for the technology. (Photo : Seth Kroll, Harvard University/Wyss Institute)
Researchers said the robots could be used to develop self-deploying structures, such as shelters for space exploration, or could be used in places where logistics are difficult, such as delivering humanitarian aid in war zones. (Image source: Seth Kroll, Harvard University/Wyss Institute)

“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years,” said Dr. Rob Wood, a faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Robots with this design cost less to build and transport, and could work in tighter spaces, the research team said in the August issue of the journal Science. The Harvard developers, working with a team from the Massachusetts Instituted of Technology, were inspired by the Japanese art of paper folding and how such engineering could reduce the cost of creating complex devices and objects.

“I’m sure people have seen in examples of origami — you can use folding to create fantastically complex structures,” Wood said. “But once the complexity of these things exceeds a threshold, folding them by hand becomes painstaking.”

The new robot is the first that builds itself and performs a function without human intervention.

“Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet,” engineering Ph.D. student Sam Felton said. The team used computer design tools to inform the optimal design and fold pattern — and after about 40 prototypes, Felton honed in on the one that could fold itself up and walk away. He created the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine and his hands.

Wood said there are a number of possible applications for this kind of technology.

“Imagine self-deploying structures – maybe shelters or structures for space exploration or for satellites,” he said“Things where the logistics are difficult, like humanitarian aid in war zones.”

The robots are the culmination of a series of advances made by the team over the last few years, including development of a printed robotic inchworm — which still required human involvement while folding itself — and a self-folding lamp that had to be turned on by a person after it self-assembled, according to the Wyss Institute.

Check out the origami robots below — make sure you’re watching at 1:30:

(H/T: Tech Times)

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