What do you get when you combine paper and Shrinky Dinks? If you are a Harvard or MIT engineer, you might just get an origami-inspired self-folding robot.

Of course, there is a little more to it than just that, but the robot starts out as a flat sheet of paper and plastic (Shrinky dinks) with carefully placed hinges. Attached to the middle of the structure is a small circuit board that connects to each hinge. A microcontroller (powered by two batteries) turns the circuits on, which makes the plastic heat up. This process makes the robot begin folding itself. Once the plastic cools off, the structure becomes hard again, allowing the microcontroller to issue the command to walk away.

Although this robot is the first of its kind that works without any human assistance, perhaps its most impressive feature is its cost: engineers only spent about $100 assembling it. Engineers made the sheet with simple tools, including an ink printer and a laser machine. They assembled the rest of the robot was assembled by hand, which only took about two hours.

"We're trying to make robots as quickly and cheaply as possible," says Samuel Felton, a Harvard graduate student and lead author of the study.

Felton notes that the basic robot built by his team could be expanded upon. The right computer software could be programmed with origami folding math, and allow creation of robots for handling any sort of task. The robots can be made larger or smaller, depending on need. Materials, such as polymers with shape memory, could also be used, creating stronger robots that require less heat.

These concepts behind the self-folding robots could lead to quickly building robotic help on demand, particularly for emergencies. For example, in search and rescue missions, an origami robot could be created and activated quickly for exploration of small spaces, going where humans cannot go.

However, the engineering team has even loftier goals for their technology in mind.

"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," says Felton.

Felton imagines a day where anyone can get a robot for whatever they need. For example, if you need a dog walker, you may someday go to the local robotics store, order a custom-built dog walking robot, and have it within a few hours.

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Tags: Robots Origami