Origami Robot Self-folds, Walks, Completes Tasks

MIT's Untethered Miniature Origami Robot could have a variety of medical uses when introduced inside of a human body, potentially zapping cancer cells or unclogging arteries.


Slits cut into the outer layers by a laser cutter guide the folding process. If two slits on opposite sides of the sheet are of different widths, then when the middle layer contracts, it forces the narrower slit’s edges together, and the sheet bends in the opposite direction. In their experiments, the researchers found that the sheet would begin folding at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once the robot has folded itself up, the proper application of a magnetic field to the permanent magnet on its back causes its body to flex. The friction between the robot’s front feet and the ground is great enough that the front feet stay fixed while the back feet lift. Then, another sequence of magnetic fields causes the robot’s body to twist slightly, which breaks the front feet’s adhesion, and the robot moves forward.

Outside control

In their experiments, the researchers positioned the robot on a rectangular stage with an electromagnet at each of its four corners. They were able to vary the strength of the electromagnets’ fields rapidly enough that the robot could move nearly four body lengths a second.

In addition to the liquid-soluble versions of their robot, the researchers also built a prototype whose outer layers were electrically conductive. Inspired by earlier work from Rus and Miyashita, the researchers envision that a tiny, conductive robot could act as a tiny sensor. Contact with other objects - whether chemical accretions in a mechanical system or microorganisms or cells in the body - would disrupt a current passing through the robot in a characteristic way, and that electrical signal could be relayed to human operators.

“Making small robots is particularly challenging, because you don’t just take off-the-shelf components and bolt them together,” says Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, who studies robotics. “It’s a challenging angle of robotics, and they’ve been able to solve it.”

“They use digital manufacturing techniques so that the intelligence of the manufacturing is embedded in the material,” Lipson adds. “I think the techniques they describe would scale to smaller and smaller dimensions, so they by no means have reached a limit.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News.



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