Origami Robot: Don’t Bother, I’ll Fold Myself

By Joseph Calamia | June 29, 2010 10:31 am

Perhaps it’s a fitting tribute. The Japanese–designers of some of the world’s most ingenious robots–can now watch a traditional art form get a robotic makeover. As described in a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT and Harvard researchers have made self-folding origami that can mold itself into a boat or an airplane.

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Why? Origami is just a first step; researchers picture the "shape-shifting" robots used for everything from "smart" cups that could change from grande to venti based on how much coffee you need to a "Swiss army knife" that will bend to its user's will, forming a variety of tools.

Study coauthor Robert Wood, an electrical engineering professor at Harvard, described the work as a proof of concept for future application.

"Imagine foregoing all the tools in your toolbox and instead using a stack of self-folding sheets to produce the tools and structures you need for a particular job," says Wood. [New Scientist]

The square sheet is a little larger than 1.5 inches wide and about 2 hundredths of an inch thick. To make the square, researchers attached fiberglass triangular sections with flexible silicone rubber–the places where the sections join are the equivalent of origami folds. Strips of metal alloy along the joints that contract and expand when heated and cooled (as current runs through them) serve as the folding robot’s muscles.

When the alloy strips reached 178 degrees F, they bent, taking the whole sheet with them. The sheets folded into a variety of shapes in a matter of a few seconds, and magnetic closures helped them stay in place. Eventually, the 32-tile sheets folded into boats and airplanes. [MIT computer scientist Daniela] Rus says the key was figuring out algorithms for folding. It was like learning origami. [Popular Science]

One might picture “programmable matter” like this in the depths of space. Perhaps it could have been handy as a folding solar sail like the one on the Japanese Ikaros solar-sail project? Given other morphing robots, might we also see folding robots crawl under doors in search and rescue attempts? In fact, perhaps the least of its benefits will be folding paper, where we, humans, continue to rule:

The researchers note that although the algorithms produce a workable folding pattern to make a given shape, human experts are often able to design a more efficient scheme. “It doesn’t know how to get creative, and sometimes human origamists can see a few moves ahead, like a chess player,” Rus says. “You see patterns that are not obvious to a computer program that does a step-by-step process.” [Scientific American]

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Video: Robert Wood, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Daniella Rus, MIT/CSAIL.

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