Origami Robots Begin Their Fantastic Voyage

While speaking with an innovative robotic company this week, I concluded it takes a lot of humans to sell just one robot.  The employment around robotics was further validated by Sunday’s WSJ article about Uber poaching scientists from Carnegie Mellon University.  While there will be job fallout, robots in the long run will open up the field to new unforeseen levels, even microscopic…

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Technische Universität München (TU Munich) in Germany have unveiled a small origami robot that can fold itself, walk around, and even self-destruct. Experts believe this new technology can be used to help doctors perform key medical operations from within the patient’s body (think the Fantastic Voyage)

The presentation was made earlier this week at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Seattle, Washington hosted by Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Designed and built by scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the tiny robot measures at around 1.7 centimeters long and weighs about one third of a gram.

The robot’s primary feature is a neodymium magnet layered with polystyrene and PVC. When heated, the material allows it to take on another form similar to an origami.

A multi-stage folding process can also be achieved by heating the robot at varying degrees. Low heat can give the shape-shifting robot one form, but placing it back on the heating pad and raising the temperature can result in a secondary design.

Instead using a set of wires to make the robot move, it uses an external magnetic field made up of four coils to guide it along its path. These magnets power its movement by cycling on and off at 15 hertz.


The MIT robot can be made to walk or roll depending on its task, and it can also be disintegrated by exposing it to acetone. Its designers are also experimenting on the robot’s structural material to allow it to be dissolved in water.

The researchers now plan to create another version of the shape-shifting robot with onboard sensors to allow it to operate on its own. The hope is that the robot could one day be used for medical purposes.

A smaller robot could be inserted into an individual’s body, navigate through the bloodstream, perform medical tasks and then eventually dissolve in the stomach.

The technology could also be used for planetary explorations. The robot could be programmed to collect various soil samples or even journey through small cracks in the ground.

Origami has been around for close to 2,000 years, now as we enter the new age of connected devices, we see innovations impact us in novel and dramatic ways.

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