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Watch this robot build itself using origami

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Folding together the robot of the future

The future of origami could be a lot more complicated than the paper-folding techniques of today. Rather than paper, researchers are starting to apply origami's principles to robotics: instead of putting a robot together piece by piece through some complicated assembly process, researchers at Harvard and MIT have been building a robot that, like origami, just needs to be folded together from a single sheet — and can do all of the folding on its own. Their robot begins as a flat sheet with some embedded electronics in it, and once activated, it takes about four minutes for to self-fold into a weird kind of crab-shape and start crawling away. The researchers are describing the robot today in a paper published in Science.

Different fold variations could easily alter a future robot

The robot's assembly process works through heat. Once the battery is connected on the unassembled sheet, it'll start to heat joints that have been built into it, waiting until they've all been bent at the proper angles before activating its walking mechanism. That's all pretty simple, but the researchers argue that it's easy to see where this can go. Instead of needing a human to active the robot by connecting its battery, the robot could activate when it's sent a signal wirelessly or it could sit and wait for an environmental cue, such as when it detects a certain temperature or pressure.

Paired with the robot's small size, that could eventually make it a very useful tool. Because the unassembled robot is largely just a flat sheet, the researchers suggest that it could easily be transported and stored. One idea is that a more advanced version of the robot could be used for search-and-rescue missions. "[They could be delivered] through a confined passageway, such as a collapsed building, after which they would assemble into their final form autonomously," Marc Lavine, a Science senior editor, says in a statement. That potential for easy deployability also makes robots like this a potential option for use in space exploration or other hazardous environments. Or, your next Ikea purchase could just assemble itself.

origami robot (credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute)

(Seth Kroll / Wyss Institute)

Beyond that, that the robots are effectively created by folding could have some interesting implications for manufacturing: like in origami, a slightly different fold could result in a major change to the final structure. That means that manufacturers might be able to make changes to a robot design quite easily, without having to dramatically retool an assembly line. The researchers also imagine that an algorithm could eventually be capable of figuring out exactly what folds are needed to attain what changes in shape, streamlining the whole process.

Origami could be the new 3D printing

The researchers compare their use of origami to 3D printing — an increasingly easy way to turn 2D materials into 3D shapes. Likewise, there are still great issues here with what sizes the origami robots can work in, and likewise, it's possible that figuring out how to work with different materials could resolve some of those issues and expand the possibilities of what these creations can do.

Other researchers have been looking into this type of origami structure for robots already, but today's is said to be the first result that can operate without any human intervention (aside from kicking off the assembly process, of course). As such, the researchers don't necessarily see these robots as something that'll have a presence in your home any time soon, but eventually, they imagine that you might see plenty around the neighborhood.