Building robots is difficult, expensive work. Wouldn’t it be great if robots could just somehow build themselves? We’ve seen robots thatcan be printed and robots that can be folded, but this little guy manages to do both of those things all by himself.
Self-folding happens thanks to shape memory polymers that contract when heated. By printing these polymers on one side of a hinged substrate and then heating them, the hinge can be made to bend. The amount of bend is controlled by etching flexible connectors that connect both sides of the hinge, and with enough hinges heated in the right order, it’s possible to create fairly complex folded shapes, including things like interlocking structural elements.
The tricky part of the process is the folding of the robot itself: installing the battery and motor is trivial enough for a human to do, which means that a relatively simple pick and place robot should have no problems doing the same thing. This means that these robots have the potential to scale massively: they can be printed out of cheap materials, they fold themselves together, and another robot can plonk some hardware on them and they’re good to go.
"Robot Self-Assembly by Folding: A Printed Inchworm Robot," by Samuel M. Felton, Michael T. Tolley, Cagdas D. Onal, Daniela Rus, and Robert J. Wood from the the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, was presented this week at 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2013 in Germany.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.