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Science Creates a Self-Folding Origami Robot (Made of Shrinky Dinks)

Science Creates a Self-Folding Origami Robot (Made of Shrinky Dinks)

Courtesy the Wyss Institute

Researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a robot that can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a beetle-like, four-legged walking form. Have a look here.

It’s not the first folding robot: Some of the same engineers and mathematicians who collaborated on this one have built other origami robots, including robotic bees. This one, however, is the first to be able to fold itself rather than being folded by a person. The innovation raise the potential of robots that can be stacked compactly, like so many mouse pads, and then flown into hostile environments—either battlefields or other planets—where they then can be left to self-assemble.

“This device could be sent somewhere and function without anyone else being involved,” says Sam Felton, a Harvard doctoral student in mechanical engineering and lead author of the paper, published in the journal Science, that announced the robot.

As befits a robot that relies on the principles of origami, it’s made of paper, layered with a circuit board and “a contractile layer of prestretched polystyrene,” as the paper describes. It’s the same prestretched polystyrene that make up Shrinky Dinks, those colorful sheets children color and cut into shapes, then pop into the oven so they shrink and harden. Cleverly, the Shrinky Dink material in this case was used to make the folds—when the joints are heated by internal heating elements, the prestretched polystyrene contracts, causing the joint to buckle into the desired angle fold.

The joints are left to cool between foldings, allowing them to harden. In that sense, the robot is not a true transformer, since once it has folded itself up it can’t be unfolded. When it has finished its origami metamorphosis, the robot can start to walk, powered by two motors on its back.

While 3D printing has gotten the lion’s share of attention, Felton and others at his Harvard lab see origami-inspired folding as a promising alternative. Complex machines could be printed on two-dimensional sheets, then fold themselves into shape, either immediately or when needed.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Felton. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go. You could send a ream of sheets into space that then unfold into a satellite.”

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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