Origami robots may be the next great revolution in automated technology. Starting from a flat plane, the tiny robot can fold itself into a three-dimensional form, and start traveling in less than five minutes.
Origami is an ancient art form developed in Japan, home of the fictional Transformers, cars and trucks that can turn into robots, ready for battle. Knowledge gathered from this branch of art is currently utilized in the real world to design safer buildings and structures, as well as advanced air bags for automobiles.
Rigid origami uses many of the principles of the ancient Japanese art form, utilizing harder material such as plastics, along with hinges. In this latest design, these connections are manufactured from copper, which contracts when exposed to heat. A processor sends electrical current to a heater inside the hinge, causing the copper to bend, folding the robot.
A motor inside the mechanical device provides the mechanism needed to propel the vehicle forward, without any additional input from human controllers. Immediately upon completion of the folding process, the origami robot scurries away on four legs.
The method by which heat causes the hinges to contract is akin to Shrinky dinks - decorative plastic pieces that shrink when placed in an oven. The same material - polystyrene - which is used in the toy is also used in the manufacture of the new self-assembling robot. This material hardens after copper bends, adding rigidity to the hinge.
Origami robots could be used to slide into tight spaces during search and rescue missions, assembling when needed.
"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, a doctoral student at Harvard University and lead author of the study, said.
In addition to origami, the team of developers also looked to nature for inspiration of self-folding systems, such as flowers. Before this latest development, the same group also developed a robotic inchworm and a self-assembling lamp. Each of these previous inventions required human operators to turn them on after they assembled. This new design is the first model that is completely autonomous in that sense. Around 40 prototypes were tested before developers were satisfied with their robotic invention.
Before the heating process begins, the body of the robot is flat. However, the battery, motor, and connector rise up above the plane of the body. New designs of each of these would need to be flat as well in order to maximize the benefits of a truly flat robot.
Harvard University created and released a video showing the self-folding origami robot in action, as well as telling the story of their inspiration.