A team of engineers and computer scientists have created a robot that transforms itself from a sheet of paper with embedded electronics into a machine that functions without human intervention. The robot is a step on the road toward self-manufacturing electronic systems.

The robot assembles itself in under four minutes and crawls away once it has reached its final state. The system is made from paper coated with polystyrene, and about $80 in electronic components.

The robot is a project of Robert J. Wood, professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Sam Felton a doctoral student at the same institute and their team comprised of scientists from Harvard and the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The findings were published in the paper A method for building self-folding machines (paywalled).

Space exploration
The scientists have been working on self-assembling systems for years but it is the first time they succeeded in creating one that autonomously performs a function after assembly. The larger vision of the engineers is to build self-assembling systems that can interact with their environment autonomously. Future iterations of the crawl bot can be used to exploit environments that are hard to reach for humans. An army of robots could be sent to an asteroid to collect data or mine for resources.

Autonomous manufacturing
Another strain of sci-fi-gone-real the scientists hope to help develop is that of autonomous manufacturing: machines being created by automated design and self-assembly.

The self-folding structure of the crawl bot was inspired by origami. By creating a robust structure from a single sheet, the hassle of assembling individual parts is being side-stepped. Finding the optimal structural design for the bot was done in part by a computer.

The design was then printed with a solid ink printer on the paper-polystyrene composite and cut out with a laser cutter and two motors, two batteries, a microcontroller and a flexible circuit board were manually added. Hinges were attached at the folding points, each containing an embedded circuit. On command of the microcontroller these circuits produce heat causing the hinges to fold to a predetermined angle. Once the robot has reached its final shape and has cooled down, the microcontroller gives the crawl command.

What the scientists hope to one day achieve is to fully automate all the steps in the manufacturing process. People could get custom made robots from manufacturing facilities that are available to the public like shops are today. “You would be able to come in, describe what you need in fairly basic terms, and come back an hour later to get your robotic helper,” says Robert Wood.

Image by Seth Kroll

Source: harvard.edu