WASHINGTON – In what may be the birth of cheap, easy-to-make robots, researchers have created complex machines that transform themselves from little more than a sheet of paper and plastic into walking automatons.
Borrowing from the ancient Japanese art of origami, children’s toys and even a touch of the “Transformers” movies, scientists and engineers at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created self-assembling paper robots. They are made out of hobby shop materials that cost about $100. After the installation of tiny batteries and motors, a paper robot rises on four stumpy legs and starts scooting in a herky-jerky manner. It transforms from flat paper into a jitterbugging four-legged robot in four minutes.
A small lightweight robot of this type could be used to explore outer space and other dangerous environments, or get into cramped places during search-and-rescue missions, researchers said. That’s just the start of what may be a long-envisioned robotic revolution.
It eventually could be as technology-changing as the three-dimensional printer, said experts unconnected with the study.
Harvard robotics researcher Sam Felton, lead author of the paper published Thursday in the journal Science, and study co-author Daniela Rus of MIT say they see a time when someone who wants a dog-walking robot would go to a store that has specialized equipment to make the device — “some sort of robo-Kinkos,” Felton said. Kinkos is an office supply store chain.
And eventually the technology could produce more complex machines.
“In principle it will be possible to say, ‘I want a robot to play chess with me,’ and generate a machine that has the computational abilities to play chess with you,” Rus said.
Today it costs a lot of money to build a robot, but this method is fast, cheap and specialized, Rus said.
“This is a simple, flexible and rapid design process and a step toward the dream of realizing the vision of 24-hour robot manufacturing,” Rus said.
These robots aren’t quite Transformers of movie and cartoon fame. Once they assemble themselves automatically with heat-activated hinges that allow the folding, there are no more changes, Rus and Felton said.
The robots themselves start out a bit smaller than a normal sheet of paper. Off-the-shelf batteries and motors are embedded at a cost of about $80. Altogether, the early machines that the researchers made, along with the equipment to build them, cost less than $1,000 apiece, Felton said.
The robots, which the researchers did not name, are about 6 inches (15 cm) long, 6 inches (15 cm) wide, and about 2 inches (5 cm) tall. They weigh less than 3 ounces. (85 grams) They move about 2 inches (5 cm) per second. But they can be made bigger or smaller, with some limitations, Felton said.
He said the way heating activates the hinges was inspired by the children’s toy line Shrinky Dinks, which shrivel and fold when put in the oven.
Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks, an MIT emeritus professor who wasn’t part of the research, said this could be close to other momentous changes in technology, such as the first 3-D printers or even 1947’s ENIAC, an early computer.
“Lots more people will join in working on these techniques, each making incremental progress and decades from now we’ll wonder why it took so long to get where we’ll then be with it,” Brooks said in an email message.