WASHINGTON — In what may be the birth of cheap, easy-to-make robots, researchers have created complex machines that transformed themselves from little more than a sheet of paper and plastic into walking automatons.
Borrowing from the ancient Japanese art of origami, children’s toys and a touch of the “Transformers” movies, scientists and engineers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created self-assembling, paper robots.
They are made out of hobby-shop materials that cost about $100. After the installation of tiny batteries and motors, a paper robot rises on four stumpy legs and starts scooting in a herky-jerky manner. It transforms from flat paper to jitterbugging robot in just four minutes.
To illustrate, Samuel Felton, a graduate student at Harvard University, connected the batteries on an intricately cut sheet on a table, sending electricity coursing through, heating it. The sheet lurched to life, the pieces bending and folding into place. The transformation complete, the sheet, now a four-limbed robot, scurried away at more than 2 inches a second.
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The creation, reported Thursday in the journal Science, is the first robot that can fold itself and start working without any intervention from the operator.
“We’re trying to make robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” said Felton, lead author of the study.
Inspired by origami, the Japanese paper-folding art, such robots could be deployed, for example, on future space missions, Felton said. Or perhaps the technology could one day be applied to Ikea-like furniture, folding from a flat-packed board to, say, a table without anyone fumbling with Allen wrenches or deciphering instructions seemingly rendered in hieroglyphics.
Felton’s sheet is not simple paper, but a composite made of layers of paper, a flexible circuit board and Shrinky Dinks — plastic sheets, sold as a toy, that shrink when heated above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers attached to the sheet two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller that served as the brain for the robot. Those components accounted for $80 of the $100 of materials needed for the robot.
The sheet took a couple of hours for Felton to construct. Still, it was simpler and cheaper than the manufacturing process for most machines today — robots, iPhones, cars — that are made of many separate pieces that are then glued, bolted and snapped together.
Felton and a study co-author, Daniela Rus of MIT, say creating such small, lightweight robots could be the start of a long-envisioned robotic revolution.
Felton and Rus say they see a time when someone who wants a dog-walking robot would go to a store that has specialized equipment to make the device — “some sort of robo-Kinkos,” Felton said.
Eventually, the technology could produce more complex machines.
“In principle it will be possible to say, ‘I want a robot to play chess with me,’ and generate a machine that has the computational abilities to play chess with you,” Rus said.
“This is a simple, flexible and rapid design process and a step toward the dream of realizing the vision of 24-hour robot manufacturing.”
The robots aren’t quite Transformers of movie and cartoon fame. Once they assemble themselves automatically with heat-activated hinges that allow the folding, there are no more changes, Rus and Felton said.
The creation starts out a bit smaller than a normal 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper.
The robots, which the researchers did not name, are about 6 inches long, 6 inches wide, and 2 inches tall. They weigh less than 3 ounces. They move about 2 inches per second. But they can be made bigger or smaller, with some limitations, Felton said.
“It’s just an amazing feat of engineering,” said Michael Dickey, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University who was not involved in the project but provided the inspiration for using Shrinky Dinks in self-folding structures. “It’s all programmed in, and you hit go.”
Although Felton meticulously designed the walking robot, the hope is that the mathematics of origami folding will allow computer software to figure out the cuts and folds needed to create complex robots capable of doing almost any task.
A second paper in Science this week described how origami folding can alter the properties of a material. “That isn’t something that is really done in the material-science community,” said Itai Cohen, a professor of physics at Cornell University and the senior author of the paper.
Cohen and colleagues examined sheets with a particular pattern of repeating folds known as Miura-Ori tessellation. By popping out some of the folds, the properties of the sheets changed, becoming stiffer or curved or able to swing like a hinge.
“It becomes this kind of material you can transform on the fly, and that’s what’s really interesting,” Cohen said.
For example, a folded-up sheet could be unfurled on top of a building and then made rigid, forming a roof. Or the technique could be incorporated into the surface of robotic limbs, floppy and flexible when reaching for an object and then stiffening to pick it up.
“This is still all science fiction,” he acknowledged.