Changing robot capabilities by using self-folding origami “exoskeletons”
From butterflies that sprout wings to hermit crabs that switch their shells, many animals must adapt their exterior features in order to survive. While humans don’t undergo that kind of metamorphosis, we often try to create functional objects that are similarly adaptive — including our robots.
Despite what you might have seen in “Transformers” movies, though, today’s robots are still pretty inflexible. Each of their parts usually has a fixed structure and a single defined purpose, making it difficult for them to perform a wide variety of actions.
Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are aiming to change that with a new shape-shifting robot that’s something of a superhero: It can transform itself with different “outfits” that allow it to perform different tasks.
Dubbed “Primer,” the cube-shaped robot can be controlled via magnets to make it walk, roll, sail, and glide. It carries out these actions by wearing different exoskeletons, which start out as sheets of plastic that fold into specific shapes when heated. After Primer finishes its task, it can shed its “skin” by immersing itself in water, which dissolves the exoskeleton.
“If we want robots to help us do things, it’s not very efficient to have a different one for each task,” says Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and principal investigator on the project. “With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different ‘accessories’ to use in different situations.”
Primer’s various forms have a range of advantages. For example, “Wheel-bot” has wheels that allow it to move twice as fast as “Walk-bot.” “Boat-bot” can float on water and carry nearly twice its weight. “Glider-bot” can soar across longer distances, which could be useful for deploying robots or switching environments.