Robots start flat, then pop into shape and crawl

Self-folding machines use heated hinges to transform

TRANSFORMER  A flat robot about the size of an iPad mini and made mostly of paper and plastic can fold itself into a crawling machine.

Seth Kroll/Wyss Institute

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A new crawling robot has taken a page from origami design.

The machine’s paper-and-plastic  body can spring from flat to 3-D just like a pop-up book, researchers report in the Aug. 8 Science. And the action is automatic.

Engineers have built gizmos that can do some self-folding, but they also required hands-on help from humans. By embedding heaters in the robot’s hinges, Harvard microrobotics engineer Sam Felton and colleagues created a device that shifts shape on its own, using preprogrammed temperature changes.

A tiny onboard computer tells the heaters which hinges to warm first. The hinges are made of a polymer that contracts when heated, pulling the robot’s parts together. When the hinges cool, they lock into a folded position. Then two motors jiggle the bot’s legs, making the machine shimmy along in a slow crawl.

Self-folding devices like the robot could save room on spacecraft, or could even transform into portable shelters.

JITTER BOT  This self-folding robot uses heated hinges to self-assemble, and can pop into a folded configuration in about four minutes.

S. Felton, Science/AAAS

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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