Video: Origami-Inspired Robot Transforms From Flat to 3-D in Minutes

By Carl Engelking | August 7, 2014 1:00 pm


The origins of origami trace back to the sixth century, when intricately folded paper was first used for ceremonial occasions in Japan. Now, over 1,500 years later, engineers are revisiting the ancient art form with a modern twist: A team of researchers from Harvard and MIT have just unveiled a paper robot that can autonomously fold to transform itself into a functioning machine and walk away within 4 minutes.

And if you think the cost of a transformer is out of your budget, think again. The self-folding robot cost just $100 to build. Researchers envision a day when people can order a design for a robot, get it shipped, watch it fold and then enjoy while it entertains your cat or sweeps your porch.

“This approach to fabricating robots and tooling would democratize access to robots,” says study co-author Daniela Rus of MIT.

Robotic Origami

You may remember Shrinky-Dinks, the popular children’s toys that shrink when you put them in the oven. Well, researchers said those toys served as the inspiration for the researchers’ self-folding robot. Shrinky-Dinks are a type of material called a memory polymer, which changes shape when it’s heated above a certain temperature.

Researchers coated a thick paper substrate with the memory polymer. They then cut a two-dimensional pattern that included all the robot’s hinges. Each hinge housed embedded circuits that warmed to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, providing the heat necessary to alter the polymer’s shape and cause a fold. Researchers manipulated the fold angles by varying the gap between the paper and the hinge — the greater the gap, the greater the fold.

Then, motors, a power source and other electrical components were added to the flat paper frame, and the robot was programmed to run a five-step pattern of sequential folds to build its structure. When researchers connected the batteries, the program automatically ran, and all they needed to do was watch.

They published their findings Thursday in the journal Science. 

origami robot

Democratizing Robots

Researchers say self-assembling robots offer several advantages over traditional “nuts and bolts” bots. For one, they’re inexpensive; the team built their prototype with readily available materials and technology. Theoretically, all a future robot manufacturer would need is these materials, a computer-generated design and a programmed chip to build custom robots that perform myriad functions. Currently, entire assembly line processes would need to be reconfigured at a high cost to build a new robot on the fly.

“Pushing a button would generate the design files, send them to the printers for fabrication, and also produce a programming environment for using the (robot),” Rus says. “This approach could extend to everyday life.”

Additionally, going from flat to functional paves the way for robots that are easily transportable and can get into tight places. Researchers envision satellites that self-assemble in space, or search-and-rescue robots that can be deployed in dangerous environments. Several mechanisms could initiate the folding sequence, such as environmental factors or a wireless remote.

And if this technology goes mainstream, it’ll only be a matter of time before robot manufacturers are swamped with orders for a self-folding Optimus Prime.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: gadgets, math, physics, robots
  • Odforever

    ORIGAMI ROBOTS R AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Odforever


  • stephaniejmota

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  • susette_du_soleil

    What is cool about the repercussions of having our environment pervasively littered with robots?!!

    Is anyone thinking here?!! What are we going to do with millions and billions of people on this earth? Manufacture designer versus to target specific populations in order to kill them? Reinvigorate old microbes or viruses to do the same? Socially, Politically, Psychologically engineer a World War? Because, we simply do not have an economic system on this earth currently that can sustain all these people AS IT IS CURRENTLY!! Let alone with robots everywhere taking the fewer jobs that we currently have?

    Any choice made on this planet is a decision to exclude a plethora of other selections. So when we choose these robots, are we actually able to project 10-15 moves on the chess board as to what other decisions points will have to be faced?

    If I told you that choosing to have these pervade our human world would necessitate that powerful elites currently in charge of our world to choose to concoct events to eliminate more than half of the world’s population, would you still choose to have these robots and others permeate our world?

    Ms. Ardt posited the the greatest evil in the modern world is THOUGHTLESSNESS

    ” She raised the question of whether evil
    is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of
    ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a
    critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.” .

    I second that!

  • Ubu-never-again

    Susette I agree with you. And I would point an other thing: what have to do the smart people trained to develop and evaluated on the basis of their “creativity”? They are like rats in the trap – always looking for new thing to announce some discovery. So they put the best of them in the research, but I have a bizarre feeling, that they don’t have time to think of the consequences.
    And the most crying problems of people still are unsolved. Why? Is anybody think about the real balance in the life: what kind of work will the humans do in the future? They will become unusefull. Maybe this lack of idea makes the deciders test how many could be eliminated by the so called “uncertain” peace. What will be the future for humanity while the disproportion between the most wealthy and the poorest grow every year. By consequence so many need every day to prove their usefulness for so little that decide global destiny. This is the real problem to solve – how to empower the people and restore their dignity…


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