In the realm of microrobotics, small and malleable machines are, in the meme-y words of Mugatu, so hot right now. Scientists appear to be doing everything they can to crack the code behind what it takes to make tiny bots morph into whatever form necessary for them to complete their tasks. Now, a team of researchers from Harvard and MIT is looking to origami for inspiration. And they already have a small bot that can turn itself into a boat and a plane.
Professor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory ( CSAIL), led the team that developed a first iteration of the origami-robot design. One that works off the concept of “programmable matter” folding.
As Rus and her colleagues describe in their paper published in the journal PNAS, programmable matter has “constituent elements [that] interact and rearrange intelligently” to achieve their goal. And while that’s a bit abstract, you’ve likely seen similar examples of programmable matter previously. Such as these little robot armies that can find their way into their target via a syringe.
Rus and her team’s programmable matter works using a sheet consisting of glass fiber and hydrocarbon materials. (Hydrocarbons are organic compounds that contain only hydrogen and carbon atoms.) To bend, the sheet has elastic, plastic creases that divide the sheet into 16 squares approximately .4 inches across. Each of which is itself divided into two triangles. Tiny pieces of “shape-memory” alloy—that is, metal that changes shape when somebody applies electricity to it—form the actuators that move each of the little triangles.
To make the sheet form into a tiny boat or plane, the researchers developed their own set of computer algorithms. The algorithms take in 3D shapes from a computer program and determine how to reproduce them via the folding sheets. In other words, the researchers figured out how to apply electric shocks to the shape-memory alloy in the right sequence to bend the triangles and squares predictably.
“[Y]ou could imagine downloading the new iPhone,” Erik Demaine, another MIT researcher involved with the project said in a press release. “In the same way that you download the latest CD from your favorite artist totally electronically, you could imagine downloading shapes electronically, and programming hardware the same way you program software.”
Obviously Rus and Demaine still have a long way to go before downloadable iPhones become a thing. But the concept is certainly intriguing; the idea of loading electronic sheets into a 3D printer and popping out gadgets. It almost sounds like this could even be a precursor to Star Trek‘s replicator. Although even just mastering an origami swan, sadly, seems like it’s still a couple years off at this point.