This tiny, self-folding robot could one day be part of a large ant-like swarm

Call it a misspent youth playing with Optimus Prime and Megatron toys if you want, but there’s just something about transforming robots that always captures our imagination. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, recently appealed to this part of our nature by developing a miniature, centimeter-scale self-folding robot, which can assemble itself from out of a flat sheet and then shimmy along the ground by vibrating. Oh, yes, and it’s designed to work in a swarm, too.

“The goal of this project is to leverage self-folding techniques developed by my group and others to fabricate insect-inspired swarm robots,” Michael Tolley, assistant professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, told Digital Trends. “The rapid fabrication of self-folding robots is similar to the concept of ‘4D printing’ — where the 4th dimension is changes in shape over time, caused by a smart material after printing. We see this as a way to realize rapidly deployable robot swarms for mapping or sensor network deployment for applications including disaster response or extraplanetary exploration.”

uc san diego self folding robot swarm flatrobot

The new robots are made using composite laminates, including paperboard and spring steel which gives them their strength, kapton for providing flexibility, a polystyrene shape memory material that controls the self-folding, and an adhesive which binds the multiple layers together. Currently, the electronic components are soldered on top, although this may be automated in future versions. The folding process is controlled using a heating circuit, which is disconnected once the folding has been completed.

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Going forward, Tolley said that the team is interested in exploring how multiple self-folding robots could be used to carry out limited tasks collectively, much like a swarm of robotic ants.

“As with most of the projects in my lab, this work is inspired by biological systems,” he said. “Social insects like ants serve as a great example for how to achieve complex goals, like searching for and collecting food, with a set of simple agents. We hope to develop a robotic system that can assist humans, but with individual robots that are simple and inexpensive enough that they can be deployed in hazardous environments.”