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.
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.
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.