Transformers: brought to you by origami

Have you ever wished that robots like the Transformers were real?

Your dream might have come true at Harvard, where scientists have figured out a way for robots to assemble themselves through the ancient methods of—you’ll never guess what—origami. That’s right, researchers at Harvard have made self-assembling robots from flat materials and polymers with engines that provide heat to help the robot assemble itself.

The Harvard scientists considered folding the objects themselves and saw how they functioned. However, according to professor Robert Wood, “Once the complexity of these [origami structures] exceeds a threshold, folding them by hand becomes painstaking,” which led them to make these self-assembling wonders that demonstrate the unbeatable power of origami.

How does this robot work, exactly? Although dubbed as easy to assemble, it took researchers 40 prototypes to come up with this beautiful design. It consists of a flat sheet that is able to fold itself, one microcontroller, two motors and two batteries. The folding sheet is made of polystyrene, a lightweight, strong foam that carries a flexible circuit board in the middle, programmed to fold at specific angles. Each circuit produces heat, which triggers a folding action in the polystyrene, which is how the robot forms itself. After just four minutes, the polystyrene cools down and hardens, allowing the robot to move around freely, in any direction with just a click of the remote control.

The researchers say their main aim is to provide new ways of creating complex objects.

“It’s a similar theme to 3D printing. We’re trying to provide tools for people—whether they’re engineers or not.”

What are the implications of these robots? On the positive side, they can actually be used as “ninjas” to do good for the world. For example, these self-assembling robots could be produced on a much larger scale and be deployed to places where human resources are low, such as war zones. When combined with flying power, they could be deployed in forests to keep watch on endangered specie. These are very good things, but can origami power be used only for good?

Picture this: these robots could be produced on a smaller scale with extra appendices attached that function to spy on people using cameras and microphones, allowing them to infiltrate people’s privacy and places of high strategic import—such as a war zone. They can be made easily and from cheap materials. Therefore, virtually anyone with sufficient skills would be able to produce miniscule, self assembling, spying devices that could be used for good and justice… or for evil.

In the end, what will it be? Can these self assembling robot origami ninjas be applied in situations where they might save lives and the ecosystem? Or does this new technology have unforeseen implications? Lastly, and most importantly, will I be able to build my own Optimus Prime?

Sources: BBC, CNET