VIDEO: Meet The Flat Pack Robot Which Folds Itself Into Shape And Walks Away

An autonomous robot which starts out as a single flat sheet folds itself into a complex shape and crawls away without any human intervention. Image: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

A team of engineers from Harvard and MIT used origami skills to create a robot which assembles itself into a complex shape in four minutes and crawls away without human intervention.

The advance, described in the journal Science, demonstrates the potential to quickly and cheaply build sophisticated machines which interact with the environment and to automate much of the design and assembly process.

“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years,” says Rob Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Imagine dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there.

The robots are the culmination of a series of advances made by the team over the last few years, including development of a printed robotic inchworm – which still required human involvement while folding itself – and a self-folding lamp that had to be turned on by a person after it self-assembled.

The new robot is the first which builds itself and performs a function without human intervention.

The team used computer design tools to inform the optimal design and fold pattern. It took 40 prototypes to find the right design

The electromechanical system for the robot was embedded into one flat sheet.

Researcher Sam Felton, who is pursuing a doctorate at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine and his hands.

The refined design only took about two hours to assemble using a method relying upon the power of origami, the ancient Japanese art whereby a single sheet of paper can be folded into complex structures.

The origami-inspired method enabled the team to avoid the traditional nuts and bolts approach to assembling complex machines.

They started with a flat sheet, to which they added two motors, two batteries, and a microcontroller which acts like the robot’s brain.

The sheet was a composite of paper and polystyrene with a single flexible circuit board in the middle. It also included hinges programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits which produce heat on command from a microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens, making the robot stiff, and the microncontroller then signals the robot to crawl away. The entire event consumed about the same amount of energy in one AA alkaline battery.

The current robot operates on a timer, waiting about ten seconds after the batteries are installed to begin folding. However, this could easily be modified to be triggered by an environmental sensor, such as temperature or pressure.

The method is complementary to 3D printing, which also holds great promise for quickly and inexpensively manufacturing robotic components but struggles to integrate the electrical components and in this specific case, would have taken a lot longer to produce the functional prototype.

The long-term dream of this work, Wood said, is to have a facility everyone can access around the clock in their communities when they might have a need for robotic assistance, from everyday house and porch sweeping to detecting gas leaks.

See the robots come to life in this video:

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