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Origami robots build themselves and walk away

Origami is a complex art, but when it comes to robots, it could actually make things simpler. A team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering created paper robots that, when heated, fold from a flat form into complex shapes that can walk and turn.

The robots are made from paper, plastic and electronic components. Networks of circuits deliver heat created by a battery to the areas of the robot that need to fold. The plastic, which was made to transform into a preset shape when exposed to temperatures higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, then begins its transformation. The robots created at Harvard took about four minutes to turn into their final 3D shape.

An origami robot transforming from flat to 3D. Photo courtesy of Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute.
An origami robot transforming from flat to 3D. Photo courtesy of Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute.

Origami robots are more than a totally rad party trick (people do origami at parties, right?). They fall into a group of shape-shifting robots that could someday be used in search and rescue missions where shimmying through tight and dangerous spaces is often necessary. An origami robot could be fed through rubble and then assemble itself on the inside of a collapsed building or tunnel to perform a rescue task. The Harvard bots were only able to walk a little more than a tenth of a mile per hour, but they could get faster as the research continues to develop.

They are also easier and cheaper to ship. Just like Ikea furniture, you can pack more flat robots than assembled robots into a box. That would be especially appealing for sending them to space, where every inch of cargo room is especially precious.

The robots could also be an interesting alternative to 3D printing, according to Rob Wood, the senior author on a study about the robots that appeared in the journal Science today. He said the starting materials to build the robots are all off-the-shelf and makeable with tools like laser cutters, so they are relatively cheap. The technique is similar to 3D printing in that it is especially suited to making between 100 and 1,000 units of an object, but it’s faster. And like 3D printing, it can be used to make items at a scale far too tiny for human hands.

The robots, which are strong, light and customizable to have different sizes and abilities, are not the first origami robots. Two research groups debuted robots with origami wheels in June. The Harvard team has been creating self-assembling machines for at least a decade, but states the most recent invention is the first origami bot that requires no human intervention.

Now, who wants to make me an army of robot cranes?

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