A team of engineers used little more than paper and Shrinky dinks™—the classic children’s toy that shrinks when heated—to build a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape in four minutes flat, and crawls away without any human intervention.
The advance, described in Science, demonstrates the potential to quickly and cheaply build sophisticated machines that interact with the environment, and to automate much of the design and assembly process. The method draws inspiration from self-assembly in nature, such as the way linear sequences of amino acids fold into complex proteins with sophisticated functions.
“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years,” said senior author Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. The team included engineers and computer scientists from Harvard SEAS, the Wyss Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In addition to expanding the scope of ways one can manufacture robots in general, the advance harbors potential for rather exotic applications.
“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 lead author Sam Felton, a doctoral student at SEAS.
The new robot is the first that builds itself and performs a function without human intervention.