Imagine a robot that constructs itself like origami into an intricate form in exactly four minutes and then sneaks away to perform an activity without the need for any kind of human intervention at all. Well, it’s here, now.

A team of computer scientists and engineers, from Wyss Institute, Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drew their inspiration from the process of self-assembly, like the method on which linear arrangements of amino acids are folding into compound proteins with high-tech tasks.

"Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we've been chasing for many years," Rob Wood, Ph.D., study’s senior author and core faculty member at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Charles River professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, said in a statement.

According to Science journal, the development illustrates the possibility to cheaply and quickly construct sophisticated machines interacting with its environment as well as to automate considerably the assembly and design process. It also shows possibility for exotic applications.

"Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there—they could take images, collect data, and more," Sam Felton, lead author who is pursuing Ph.D. at SEAS, also said in a statement.

To build the foldable robot, they made use of tools on computer design for informing the best fold and design pattern. Following 40 prototypes, what Felton enhanced was the one that folds itself and walks away. To fabricate the sheet, he used his hands, solid ink printer and laser machine.

The ideal design took merely around two hours of assembly with the use of a method reliant on the power of origami, which is an ancient art in Japan that allows a piece of paper to be folded into complicated structures. Such approach helped the team prevent the traditional approach of going into the basics in complex machine assembly.

The foldable robot, according to the team, concludes the series of advances they made a few years back, which include the creation of the self-folding lamp and the printed robotic inchworm—but both required human intervention along the way.

Their research was not without challenges, though. Felton revealed the robot’s propensity to get burned up before folding up properly was one of the major challenges.

Meanwhile, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of Wyss Institute, said that the team’s achievement changes how people think of manufacturing with such robot constructing itself.

"The days of big, rigid, robots that sit in place and carry out the same repetitive task day in and out are fading fast,” added Ingber.

Wood said that their dream is to bring up a facility which everyone could get access with anytime within their communities in times robotic assistance is needed in everyday tasks.

The robot costs around $100. For the body alone, without the microcontroller, batteries and motors, one can get it for $20.

Researchers’ full report on the foldable robot can be viewed on “A method for building self-folding machines” study published in Science journal.

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