This Crawling Inchworm Robot Can Be Printed Out and Folds Itself

With the addition of a battery and motor, this printable and self-assembling robot can crawl like a worm

1 min read
This Crawling Inchworm Robot Can Be Printed Out and Folds Itself

Building robots is difficult, expensive work. Wouldn’t it be great if robots could just somehow build themselves? We’ve seen robots that can 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.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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