Foldable robot constructed from children's toy

The machine has been created by researchers at the Wyss Institute and can operate by itself, without any human intervention

innovation

Researchers at the Wyss Institute, part of Harvard University, have created a robot from a popular children's toy that can fold and unfold itself and then walk away without the help of humans.

The robot was produced from paper and a full electromechanical system embedded in a piece of Shrinky Dink - a flexible sheet of polystyrene that hardens and shrinks when heated. It is being used as a complementary solution to 3D printing, which currently struggles to integrate electronic parts, the researchers said.

It also includes hinges, programmed to fold at specific angles, each with their own circuit board that produces heat when told to do so by the microcontroller to start the unfolding process. The process starts approximately 10 seconds after an AA battery is attached, although in the future, a temperature or movement sensor could prompt it to start unfolding, for example.

After four minutes, the hinges stop producing heat, allowing the polystyrene material to set hard. The microcontroller then gives the command to the structure to walk away at a speed of about 0.1mph.

Rob Wood, Ph.D., a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) said: "Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we've been chasing for many years."

The team produced 40 prototypes of the design using computer design tools to ensure it could unfold with ease. The final design was based on origami, allowing it to be produced from one piece of material.

The biggest challenge in the project was ensuring the hinges didn't omit too much heat, which could cause the whole structure to burn after unfolding.

Lead author of the paper, SEAS PhD student Sam Felton said the robot could be used in a number of everyday applications: "Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get therethey could take images, collect data, and more."

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