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How a 3D-printed robot arranges itself and then reels away

Elon Musk's robot surgeon

It’s the eventual DIY robot, a machine that arranges itself out of a single sheet and then reels away — all without necessity for an onboard motor or even wheels.

The supposed rollbot, labeled this week in the paper Science Robotics, proves the power of the origami-inspired automatic system. One day, these robots could function as ecological sensors, astronomical travelers or as medical tools in the body.

As robots eventually turn out to be progressively ubiquitous, technologists and engineers have been developing ways to make them softer — permitting them to crossing point with squishy humans without harming them or to respond to unpredictable environments without breaking. However strength and durability have traditionally come from metal limbs and mechanical gears, and it’s difficult to acquire similar functionality with squishy parts.

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Elon Musk's robot surgeon

Soft and functional robots surely exist, however many of them come with a few drawbacks. For one thing, they usually have to carry their power source, which means having more difficult parts on board.

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“You’ll see highly functional soft robots that for instance have to crawl, have to jump, however usually they’re not completely soft,” noted study co-leader Arda Kotikian, a materials science graduate student at Harvard University. “And if they are, they’re usually tethered to their power source. You have to think of this tether fundamentally like a leash — so you need your very bulky power supply to be following your robot at all times.”

Origami robots have made available a potential answer to these problems. Inspired by the Japanese art of paper-folding, technologists have begun to carefully print, cut and fold sheets of material that have to exhibit remarkable qualities or even function small tasks.

Although they’re not exactly squishy, these origami bots also count as soft robots because they are flexible, yet they remain strong thanks to the flat, rigid planes between each fold.

“We sort of possess the best of both worlds, in that sense,” Kotikian noted.

To make a robot that could change shape and move without needing to be tied to a power source, the technologists D-printed sheets made of several different materials.

The flat, inflexible parts were made of an inert polymer though the folds, or hinges, were made with liquid crystal elastomer, which has to melodramatically enlarge and contract once wide-open to the correct temperature. The thicker they made these elastomer-filled folds, the more torque the hinges formed.

The scientists used two different elastomers, each of which reacted at different temperatures so that they could control the sequence in which the origami bots folded and unfolded.

They created several moving shapes, including a twisty square and a triangulated polyhedron. However, their coup de grace was the rollbot.

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When placed on a plate heated to about degrees Celsius, the flat sheet measuring about by centimeters would curl itself into a pentagon, pop out its flaps and slowly roll across the platform — no battery pack required.

The creation was made possible by the shrinking divide between material and machine, noted Caltech mechanical engineer Chiara Daraio, a co-senior author of the study.

Traditionally, engineers build a device out of a set of materials and then program it. Here, she noted, the materials themselves are automated — by familiarizing them, uniting them into novel aggregates and positioning them in complex patterns and shapes.

“The project really started as a way to challenge the fundamental limit of materials,” Daraio noted.

The rollbot won’t be winning at wind sprints anytime shortly. However, Kotikian noted they may be able to speed up the robot’s motions if they have to make its hinges heat up and cool down faster.

Such a device could be designed to respond to a diversity of diverse incentives — not just temperature but light, electricity, humidity or even differences in acidity, for instance.

These robots can function as ecological sensors or even, if miniaturized, be used in the body to function such tasks as monitoring and maintaining a healthy gut, Daraio noted. They might also be positioned as investigative robots, Kotikian added.

Tim White, a materials scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who was not involved in the effort, acclaimed rollbot and its relatives. In forthcoming, he noted, such robots could turn out to be able to familiarize their reactions to varying ecological conditions.

“The subsequent stage in robotics is inserting independence,” White noted.

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