A creation made of composite paper can fold and assemble itself and start working without intervention. Such robots could be deployed cheaply and quickly.
An intricately cut sheet lies flat and motionless on a table. Then Samuel Felton, a graduate student at Harvard, connects the batteries, sending electricity coursing through, heating it. The sheet lurches to life, the pieces bending and folding into place. The transformation completes in four minutes, and the sheet, now a four-limbed robot, scurries away at more than two inches a second. The creation, reported Thursday in the journal Science, is the first robot that can fold itself and start working without any intervention from the operator. “We’re trying to make robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” Mr. Felton said.
Inspired by origami, the Japanese paper-folding art, such robots could be deployed, for example, on future space missions, Mr. Felton said. Or perhaps the technology could one day be applied to Ikea-like furniture, folding from a flat-packed board to, say, a table without anyone fumbling with Allen wrenches or deciphering instructions seemingly rendered in hieroglyphics.
Mr. Felton’s sheet is not simple paper, but a composite made of layers of paper, a flexible circuit board and Shrinky Dinks — plastic sheets, sold as a toy, that shrink when heated above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The researchers attached to the sheet two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller that served as the brain for the robot. Those components accounted for $80 of the $100 of materials needed for the robot. While the robot could fold itself, the sheet took a couple of hours for Mr. Felton to construct. Still, it was simpler and cheaper than the manufacturing process for most machines today — robots, iPhones, cars — which are made of many separate pieces that are then glued, bolted and snapped together.
Mr. Felton’s adviser, Robert J. Wood, a professor of engineering and applied sciences, was initially interested in building insect-size robots. But for machines that small, “there really are no manufacturing processes that are applicable,” Dr. Wood said.