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Robot Self-Assembles And Walks

by Michael Keller

Roboticists have developed a flat machine that can fold itself into an operational form and take a walk. 

Built mostly from paper and polystyrene plastic that shrinks into a memorized shape when heated, the robot can assemble in around four minutes. It can crawl at roughly 2 inches per second and make turns. The work by Harvard and MIT engineers represents the first time that a robot has self-assembled and performed a function without humans needing to intervene.  

“Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet,” said Harvard Microrobotics Lab researcher and doctoral student Sam Felton. “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–they could take images, collect data and more.”

Besides space applications, the team say iterations of their robot could be used in disaster scenarios like a collapsed building to search debris for trapped victims. 

Felton and colleagues relied on origami paper-folding techniques to move the operational parts of the flat sheet into position rather than use joints connected by fasteners. They attached to a flexible circuit board in the middle of the flat robot body two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller that would orchestrate the assembly and crawling functions.

The microcontroller sent current to different polystyrene hinges in steps, which caused them to heat to 212 degrees Fahrenheit and shrink into predefined angles. This action made the robot rise from two dimensions into three. The microcontroller brain then initiated the command to move, which sent the robot scurrying at around a tenth of a mile per hour across the floor. Once the engineering team got the design right, building the robot took two hours and cost them $100 in parts.

“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years,” said Harvard engineer Rob Wood, the senior author of the paper describing the team’s work that was published today in the journal Science.

Gifs created from video courtesy S. Felton/Harvard/Science. Image courtesy Seth Kroll, Harvard Wyss Institute.

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