METAMORPHOSIS

The future of robots could be tiny origami bots that fold into different shapes

By Guanhong Hu

One huge reason why the characters in the Transformers sci-fi movie series are invincible is that they, well, transform themselves into different shapes to add multiple functions.

But in the real world, changing the inherent capabilities of robots through metamorphosis has long been a conundrum for robotics engineers because of the physical constraints of the robot body. Each component of a robot has a defined function and can be lost if modified.

As a result, self-reconfiguring robots today don’t work very well, doomed by the need for complex coordination and super-sophisticated circuit boards. Either engineers devote a lot of money and time, or they end up with a really big apparatus.

But scientists from MIT and University of York have recently developed a solution that sidesteps many of these problems: an exoskeleton for robots.

Shuhei Miyashita and his team used the origami concept to make exoskeletons for a magnetic cube robot, called “Primer”, letting it morph on demand to do various things in different conditions.

The origami-like exoskeleton can fold itself when heated. Basically, it is a rectangular sheet that is made from a pre-stretched thermo-shrinking polymer film. When the cube-bot is propelled toward the sheet by a controlled magnetic field, the researcher activates a heating pad under the sheet and it wraps around the cube in approximately three minutes. The sheets are creased in different patterns to fold into pre-designed shapes: a wheel, a boat and a glider.

The system has two stages of transformation for the Primer to achieve different functionalities.

The Primer can wear several outfits at a time, like a Russian nesting doll. It first morphs into a walk-bot. And by picking up other exoskeletons, the Primer can be turned into a wheel to roll faster, shaped into a boat to sail and carry weight, and assembled as a glider to soar across longer distances. The exoskeletons can be removed when they’re submerged in water, helping the bot switch between its different capabilities.

With this concept and technology, the team is imagining a new class of more compact, customized robots that can transform on demand to execute different tasks in any environment like space service, deep sea construction, medical procedure and search-and-rescue missions.