A team including engineers and computer scientists from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering and MIT have used the same principles used to create origami to make self-assembling robots. The method used is inspired by similar natural processes, such as the way linear sequences of amino acids fold into complex proteins with sophisticated functions or the way that a flower opens up.
The process starts with a flat sheet to which two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller are added. The sheet is a composite made up of paper and polystyrene (the same as used in the Shrinky Dinks children's toy) with a flexible circuit board in the middle. It also includes hinges containing embedded circuits that produce heat when signaled by the microcontroller, which triggers the composite to begin folding itself. The hinges cool after about four minutes and then the polystyrene hardens. The now stiff robot is signaled by the microcontroller to begin crawling away at a speed of about one-tenth a mile per hour. Total energy consumed is about the same as that found in one AA battery.
It might seem odd to turn to the ancient art of origami it make robots, but for about the past 15 years growing numbers of researchers have become intrigued by the simplicity of building things by folding up materials. Other researchers have shown that folding robots can be built, but Zhong You, a professor of engineering science at the University of Oxford believes that the work by the Harvard and MIT team is a real breakthrough because it is more complex than the simple folds that have been used before. He said, "I think it opens doors for more complicated patterns being done."
In an interview in the Harvard Gazette, Robert Wood, a professor at SEAS said that the robot is not unique, rather it's the process used to make it that is. They worked with their colleagues at MIT who proved algorithmically that folding can be used to make any sort of complex structure or mechanism. The robot is just a result of this type of manufacturing process.
Right now, the robot only assembles itself and walks away, but applications for it are almost unlimited. They could be sent through collapsed buildings or tunnels where they emerge to assemble themselves and then perform a task, perhaps to seek out survivors in these locations. They could be sandwiched together and sent into space where they assemble themselves and become a satellite. They could sweep floors or be used to detect gas leaks.
Each robot costs only about $100 each and Wood's dream is to see them widely available at many outlets on demand. He says, "You would be able to come in, describe what you need in fairly basic terms, and come back in an hour to get your robotic helper." But, don't run down to your local 7-Eleven for a robot just yet. There are still kinks to be worked out. Sam Felton, a graduate student at the Wyss Institute is now focusing on how to overcome some limitations of the current method using other technologies or materials. For example, heat sometimes caused the paper to smoke and the robot was prone to sagging.
Wood believes there is great promise for this manufacturing technique. He says, "Larger and perhaps more functional load-bearing structures can be made this way, perhaps things such as shelters or Ikea-style furniture, that kind of thing. [We can look at] expanding the scope of materials used. And I think, most importantly, what comes next is more automation in terms of design. If we want them to be accessible and usable and people making things with this, we don't want it to be just engineers [using the process]. We want it to be anybody, and so there would have to be some way to translate the desired function into form."
See a robot assemble itself: