The self-folding mobile prototype developed by researchers at MIT and Harvard. Photo: Harvard's Wyss Institute
The self-folding mobile prototype developed by researchers at MIT and Harvard. Photo: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

Using the same flexible plastic sheets that children use to make Shrinky Dinks, researchers at MIT and Harvard have devised a robot that can assemble itself—and then walk away on its own.

The unique little ‘bots come to life by combining the principles of origami, the Japanese paper-folding art, and electrical engineering. The body is made of simple, inexpensive materials: paper coated with a plastic material that shrinks when heated; the electronics are embedded between two sheets of the paper. In about four minutes, the flat sheet folds itself into shape and scuttles away on its four crab-like legs.

Researchers announced their new Transformer-like robot in a recent paper published in Science. Led by Harvard graduate student Sam Felton, the paper was co-authored by Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and MIT professor of computer science and engineering Erik Demaine.

The team imagines a variety of uses for the robots, including search and rescue missions and space exploration or even simply toys to entertain your cat. That the ‘bots can be transported anywhere in lightweight, flat packages and quickly assembled makes them especially attractive.

“The big dream is to make robots fast and inexpensive,” said Rus, Today, it takes many years and lots of money to make a robot. We may be able to reduce design time to a matter of hours.”

Rus and Demaine have collaborated on other robotics projects. Earlier this year, they presented a method for “oven-baked robots.” Demaine is an expert on the mathematics of origami, a perfect complement to Rus’s work with programmable matter.

“It’s very exciting because there is always work to be done between theory and devices,” Rus says. “I make robots and love theory, and Erik proves theorems and loves mechanisms. In order for this research to work, you need people who are of the same mind about what is important.”

See the team’s robot in action:

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