It might sound crazy, but there's a lot of complicated math to back up the fact that you can create nearly any shape you like by folding paper. Once you've created the proper shape, Mehta demonstrates that you can combine it with about $20 worth of electronics to create a fully functioning robot.
The heavy lifting is done by the software that generates these designs, employing a branch of mathematics called computational geometry. For example, a user can tell the software he wants a two-wheeled robot of a certain size, and it will generate a cut-and-fold pattern.
You can use an off-the-shelf vinyl cutter to make super-precise cuts automatically, but Mehta emphasized that a person could do just as well with a ruler and X-Acto knife.
Mehta's team's method has been used to successfully create designs as varied as a hexapod insect-like robot that waddles around on the floor, to a claw-like gripper mechanism that can pick up and hold objects.
The project has been funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and with good reason — it completely solves the problem of robotics being too expensive, which will make it an amazing tool for robotics education. It also means that if your pet completely shreds your robot, you're only out one piece of paper.
Mehta told us that the printable robot system is essentially only limited by your imagination.
Here's a line-following robot built on this principle (this one happens to be cut out of vinyl rather than paper). It uses an LED to detect the black line, and when it senses that it's over white space, it turns around and follows the line back the way it came.