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BotMakers, Unite! Origami Robots Could Start 'Transformer' Revolution

Image: Origami robot

Origami robots made out of paper, Shrinky Dinks plastic sheets and other components can fold themselves into working machines when heat is applied. Seth Kroll / Wyss Institute

Researchers have created a new breed of origami robot that folds itself into shape from a flat sheet of material — and could open the way for a robot-building revolution similar to the current 3-D printing craze.

The experimental robo-critters, described in Friday's issue of Science, were made out of paper, sheets of toy plastic known as Shrinky Dinks, batteries and motors at a cost of about $100 each. Right now the process is too labor-intensive for commercialization — but someday you could have custom-designed robots made with same-day service at a print shop. Heck, you might even make 'em yourself at home.

It'd be like having a MakerBot 3-D printer, but this would be a BotMaker.

"That's a great comment," lead author Sam Felton, a researcher at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, told NBC News. "Maybe we should try to get that domain quickly." (Sorry, Sam, the Botmaker.com domain name is already taken.)

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Felton and his colleagues built on previous innovations in self-folding robots, including a printed inchworm that made its debut last year. The technique takes advantage of the Shrinky Dink material's shape-memory properties — that is, the fact that the polystyrene material shrinks when it's heated.

For this latest experiment, the researchers created laminated sheets of Shrinky Dinks and paper, with a microcontroller, circuitry, batteries and motors strategically embedded in the sheets. The sheets were creased in accordance with the principles of origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding.

Ten seconds after the batteries were installed, the circuitry heated up the origami creases in a predetermined pattern, transforming the 2-D sheet into a 3-D structure. (Yes, like the "Transformer" robots.) When the hinges cooled, a few minutes later, the embedded microcontroller signaled the 6-inch-long (15-centimeter-long) robot to start crawling away.

It took about 40 tries to perfect the design. Each robot cost $20 for the sheets, and $80 for the electronics and batteries.

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"This approach can be expanded to everyday life," said co-author Daniela Rus, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She envisioned a day when a cat owner could have a custom-designed robotic toy printed out in a couple of hours. Someday, creating a totally new kind of robots could be "a matter of tens and hundreds of dollars, rather than millions of dollars," she said.

Senior author Robert Wood, a professor at Harvard and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, said the origami folding method "allows you to avoid the nuts-and-bolts approach" to robotic self-assembly. It's also faster than building robots using a 3-D printer, he said.

None of the researchers was willing to predict how long it'd take to commercialize the technology. They had problems getting the creases to fold precisely, and keeping the heat from damaging the robot as it was taking shape. Other types of plastic material may well be better-suited for the job than Shrinky Dinks.

Felton said that designing the robot, including the placement of the origami folds for a complex structure, was one of the biggest challenges. "There would likely be software that would automate this process," he said.

Another paper published in Science, with Cornell University's Jesse Silverberg as lead author, describes how an origami technique known as Miura-ori tesselation can be used to create robotic components that can shift their shape back and forth.

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Such innovations could usher in an age when flat sheets of building material could be shipped in to a disaster site, and turn themselves into portable shelters ... when mini-satellites and solar arrays could deploy themselves from a robotic space station ... when custom-made robots, delivered via drones, could rise up out of the boxes they came in.

It can all sound a bit scary. But Harvard's Michael Tolley, another member of Felton's research team, said the robot-folding process really isn't that much different from the way we humans got our start.

"We all began life," he said, "as a single sheet of cells that fold to create complex organs."

Authors of the Science paper titled "A Method for Building Self-Folding Machines" include MIT's Erik Demaine as well as Felton, Tolley, Rus and Wood. In addition to Silverberg, the authors of "Using Origami Design Principles to Fold Reprogrammable Metamaterials" include Arthur Evans, Lauren McLeod, Ryan Hayward, Thomas Hull, Christian Santangelo and Itai Cohen. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, MIT, Defense Department, and Harvard University as well as the Wyss Institute at Harvard.