Researchers have created inexpensive robots that self-assemble out of flat sheets of composite materials and can crawl and turn on their own. A new process enables researchers to quickly produce these complex, scalable robots that are also very strong for their weight.

“We demonstrated this process by building a robot that folds itself and walks away without human assistance,” said Sam Felton, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the lead author of a new report in the August 8 issue of the journal Science.

The researchers, in collaboration with scientists from MIT, created their robot from readily available parts such as flat sheets of paper, self-folding hinges and shape memory polymers with embedded electronics. In just four minutes, the flat composite changed into a functional machine and crawled away at a speed of two inches per second. This is the first time that a self-folding approach has resulted in a machine that can operate entirely on its own.

“Folding allows you to avoid the ‘nuts and bolts’ assembly approaches typically used for robots or other complex electromechanical devices and it allows you to integrate components (e.g., electronics, sensors, actuators) while flat,” said Rob Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences Core Faculty Member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the report’s senior author.

Felton added that “traditional manufacturing requires expensive machinery, and 3D printing is too slow for mass production, but planar composites can be rapidly built with inexpensive tools like laser cutters and etch tanks, and then folded into functional machines. Such manufacturing methods would be ideal for producing 100-1000 units.”

The possibilities seem endless for the potential uses of self-folding, functional machines. Researchers suggest they could be used to navigate small spaces in a search and rescue scenario; create self-folding shelters for use in disaster areas; rapid prototyping of designs for tiny machines; and even space exploration. Because they are created from flat sheets of composite material, they can be shipped flat in large quantities and assembled once delivered.

Composites Manufacturing covered earlier stages of the origami robot research in 2012. Read our previous coverage:

Composite Robots Folded Like Origami

Big Buzz Surrounds Micro-robots

Photo courtesy Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute.