A team of engineers from Harvard, the Wyss Institute and MIT have teamed up to design a robot that can assemble itself and walk away once its done.
"The exciting thing here is that you create this device that has computation embedded in the flat, printed version," said Daniela Rus, electrical engineer and computer science professor at MIT. "And when these devices lift up from the ground into the third dimension, they do it in a thoughtful way."
The technology was inspired by the way amino acids fold into complex proteins, and shows that scientists are able to create sophisticated robots that can automate their own design and assembly, at a low cost.
"Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we've been chasing for many years," said Robert J. Wood, an engineering professor at Harvard and the Wyss Institute.
This also marks the first robot that is able to assemble itself and perform tasks without human assistance.
"Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there," said Sam Felton, a Harvard doctoral student who was involved in the project. "They could take images, collect data and more."
Earlier this year, MIT announced that they had made progress on 3D printed robots that, when heated, automatically fold themselves into 3D shapes. These new robots are similar, but a network of electrical leads heats the robots' joints for the folding process, rather than being heated by ovens or hot plates.
"That's exciting from a geometry standpoint because it lets us fold more things," said Erik Demaine, a computer science and engineering professor at MIT. "Because we can do the sequencing, we have a lot more control and it lets us make active folding structures. Instead of just self-assembly, you can then make it walk."
The robots have five layers of materials, all created by a laser cutter. The top and bottom layers, which fold when heated, are made of polymer. In between are two layers of paper, which hold a middle layer made of copper and electrical leads. In the top layer are a microprocessor, batteries and small motors which control two robotic legs.
See how the origami, self-folding robots work in the video below.