Robot Assembles Itself, Crawls Away

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More unsettling news from the impending robot revolution: A team of engineers has built a robot that for the first time assembles itself and crawls away — all without any human intervention.

Accomplishing this first step in a robot’s autonomous self-assembly and mobility is a huge achievement in and of itself. The applications for cheaply built, sophisticated machines that interact with their environment are still in the realm of the imagination, though.

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“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 there — they could take images, collect data and more,” said Sam Felton, a PhD candidate at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Felton is the lead author of a paper published today Science.

Felton worked with engineers and computer scientists from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They were inspired by instances of self-assembly in nature, such as amino acids that fold themselves into complex proteins.

The robot is made from paper and Shrinky Dinks, that enduring children’s toy that becomes rigid when heated. It starts flat, in a design inspired from origami, the Japanese art form that folds complex shapes from a paper. Hinges were cut into the shape and designed to fold at certain angles. Two tiny motors, two batteries and a microcontroller were added to give the robot its power.

The team went through more than 40 prototypes before successfully building an entire electromechanical system, embedded in one flat sheet.

When heated, the material begins to shrink and fold at the pre-cut hinges. After about four minutes, the polystyrene stiffens and the microcontroller directs the robot to crawl away, which it does at about one-tenth of one mile per hour.

“The exciting thing here is that you create this device that has computation embedded in the flat, printed version,” Daniela Rus said in a press statement. “And when these devices lift up from the ground into the third dimension, they do it in a thoughtful way.” Rus is professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and one of the Science paper’s co-authors.

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One long term goal is to provide public facilities where anyone could walk in and order a custom robot. “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,” Wood said in a press release.

“The days of big, rigid, robots that sit in place and carry out the same repetitive task day in and out are fading fast,” he said.

Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

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