Harvard’s folding origami robot can move without requiring battery power

Whether it’s NASA’s next-generation scout robot or this jigsaw puzzle-style modular bot project, origami robots are — to quote the 2001 movie Zoolanderso hot right now. Jumping on that folding bandwagon is an intriguing new project developed by researchers at Harvard University. What they have created are diminutive origami-inspired robots that move courtesy of a wireless electromagnetic field. For those keeping track at home, this means no bulky onboard batteries required!

“Origami-based robots are an attractive group of robots due to their simplicity,” lead researcher Mustafa Boyvat told Digital Trends. “We expect that a practical solution to their power and control issues at small scales is very helpful because batteries bring limitations at those scales.”

The robots the researchers have developed do not look like what you might immediately think of as a robot. They are flat, thin plastic tetrahedrons; consisting of three outside triangles which connect to a central triangle — sporting a circuit board — by way of a hinge. This hinge is attached to coils made of a metallic material called shape-memory alloy (SMA), that is able to contract like a muscle when a current passes through it.

As nifty as the individual robots are, however, it is when these individual “muscles” are combined to form larger limbs that the really interesting uses are achieved. For example, the Harvard team demonstrated its new origami robots by combining separate origami “joints” to form a small robotic arm — able to bend left and right, while also opening and closing a gripper. The arm’s movement could be controlled by changing the frequency of the external magnetic field.

harvard wireless folding robot battery free dsc 7095
Wyss Institute at Harvard University
Wyss Institute at Harvard University

While the project is still in the research stages, over the long term, the team hopes the robots can be used in the medical field. “It is expected that this technology can be used in biomedical applications in future by enabling small scale, wirelessly powered and controlled medical tools,” Boyvat said.

One possible uses would be as a swallowable micro-robot that might be used by surgeons as an alternative to an uncomfortable endoscope. One inside a person’s body, the robot could perform simple tasks such as filming, while being controlled from the outside.

This is not the first time that we have come across a similar idea for ingestible robots. This time last year, we covered a project coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the goal of creating ingestible origami robots capable of patching wounds, dislodging foreign objects, or even potentially carrying out micro surgery on soft tissue.

We think it is fair to say that when you have both Harvard and MIT working to develop the same technology, there is probably something pretty interesting about it!

A paper describing the Harvard work was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.

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