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The traditional Japanese art of origami transforms a simple sheet of paper into complex, three-dimensional shapes through a very specific pattern of folds, creases, and crimps. Folding robots based on that principle have emerged as an exciting new frontier of robotic design, but generally require onboard batteries or a wired connection to a power source, making them bulkier and clunkier than their paper inspiration and limiting their functionality. A team of researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University has created battery-free folding robots that are capable of complex, repeatable movements powered and controlled through a wireless magnetic field. “Like origami, one of the main points of our design is simplicity,” says co-author Je-sung Koh, Ph.D., who conducted the research as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute and SEAS and is now an Assistant Professor at Ajou University in South Korea. “This system requires only basic, passive electronic components on the robot to deliver an electric current – the structure of the robot itself takes care of the rest.” The research is reported in Science Robotics. The research team’s robots are flat and thin (resembling the paper on which they’re based) plastic tetrahedrons, with the three outer triangles connected to the central triangle by hinges, and a small circuit on the central triangle. Attached to the hinges are coils made of a type of metal called shape-memory alloy (SMA) that can recover its original shape after deformation by being heated to a certain temperature. When the robot’s hinges lie flat, the SMA coils are stretched out in their “deformed” state; when an electric current is passed through the circuit and the coils heat up, they spring back to their original, relaxed state, contracting like tiny muscles and folding the robots’ outer triangles in toward the center. When the current stops, the SMA coils are stretched back out due to the stiffness of the flexure hinge, thus lowering the outer triangles back down.”

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