Features

Published: Wednesday August 13, 2014 MYT 7:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday August 14, 2014 MYT 5:18:21 PM

Origami automaton: We only got 4 minutes to change the world of robotics

In what may be the birth of cheap, easy-to-make robots, researchers have created a complex machine that can transform itself from little more than a sheet of paper and plastic into a walking automaton. 

It starts out laying flat, like a sheet of paper. Then it springs up, almost lifelike, and folds into moveable parts much like origami art. And then it crawls away. This new kind of robot could someday be used in space exploration, to slide into collapse sites to aid search and rescue, or to speed up manufacturing on assembly lines, experts said. 

Borrowing from the ancient Japanese art of origami, children’s toys, and even a touch of the Transformers, scientists and engineers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created self-assembling, paper robots. They are made out of hobby shop materials that cost about US$100 (RM322). 

After the installation of tiny batteries and motors, a paper robot rises on four stumpy legs and starts scooting in a herky-jerky manner. It transforms from flat paper to jitterbugging four-legged robot in just four minutes. This small lightweight type of robot could explore outer space and other dangerous environments, and get into cramped places for search-and-rescue missions, researchers said. 

But that’s just the start of what may be a long-envisioned robotic revolution. This eventually could be as technology-changing as the three-dimensional printer, said experts unconnected with the study and Harvard robotics researcher Sam Felton, who is lead author of the paper published in the journal Science

The impressive transforming origami robot. – AFP

Felton and study co-author Daniela Rus of MIT say they see a time when someone who wants a dog-walking robot would go to a store that has specialised equipment to make the device – “some sort of robo-Kinkos”, Felton said (Kinkos is an office supply store chain). And eventually the technology could produce more complex machines. 

“In principle it will be possible to say, ‘I want a robot to play chess with me’, and generate a machine that has the computational abilities to play chess with you,” Rus said.

Today it costs a lot of money to build a robot, but this method is fast, cheap and specialised, Rus said. “This is a simple, flexible and rapid design process and a step toward the dream of realising the vision of 24-hour robot manufacturing,” Rus said. 

These robots aren’t quite the Transformers, though; the assembly process is one way. Once they put themselves together with heat-activated hinges that allow the folding, there are no more changes, Rus and Felton said. The robots, which the researchers did not name, are about 15cm long, 15cm wide, and about 5cm tall. They weigh less than 85g. They move about 5cm per second, but can be scaled up or down, with some limitations.

Felton said the way heating activates the hinges was inspired by the children’s toy line Shrinky Dinks, which shrivel and fold when put in the oven. 

“Since we are an academic lab, we try and come up with the most interesting and challenging problems, not necessarily the most practical,” Felton said. “In space, maybe it would be too hard to build a completely self-folding satellite but maybe you would just have the solar panels deploy using shape memory materials, and that would be a very easy and short-term addition.”

Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks, an MIT emeritus professor who wasn’t part of the research, said this could be close to other momentous changes in technology, such as the first 3-D printers or even 1947’s ENIAC early computer. “Lots more people will join in working on these techniques, each making incremental progress and decades from now we’ll wonder why it took so long to get where we’ll then be with it,” Brooks said. – Agencies

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, origami, robot, folding, technology

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