If they were real, the Transformers harking from Cybertron would be considered pretty remarkable pieces of machinery.
But their transforming abilities are limited to just two forms. By combining origami and electrical engineering, researchers at MIT and Harvard are working to develop the ultimate reconfigurable robot – one that can turn into absolutely anything. To test out their theories, the researchers built a prototype that can automatically assume the shape of either an origami boat or a paper airplane when it receives different electrical signals.
One of the big research areas in distributed robotics – systems of robots that can work together to tackle complicated tasks – is what’s called “programmable matter,” the idea that small, uniform robots could snap together like intelligent Legos to create larger, more versatile robots. The U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a Programmable Matter project that funds a good deal of research in the field and specifies “particles … which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects.”
But that approach turns out to have drawbacks, says Professor Daniela Rus, director of the Distributed Robotics Laboratory at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT.
“Most people are looking at separate modules, and they’re really worried about how these separate modules aggregate themselves and find other modules to connect with to create the shape that they’re supposed to create,” Rus says. But, she adds, “actively gathering modules to build up a shape bottom-up, from scratch, is just really hard given the current state of the art in our hardware.”
Into the fold
So Rus has been investigating alternative approaches, which don’t require separate modules to locate and connect to each other before beginning to assemble more complex shapes. Fortunately, also at CSAIL is Erik Demaine, who joined the MIT faculty at age 20 in 2001, becoming the youngest professor in MIT history. One of Demaine’s research areas is the mathematics of origami, and he and Rus hatched the idea of a flat sheet of material with tiny robotic muscles, or actuators, which could fold itself into useful objects.
In principle, flat sheets with flat actuators should be much easier to fabricate than three-dimensional robots with enough intelligence that they can locate and attach to each other.