A team at UCLA has built origami-inspired robots that overcome a crucial design challenge that has previously prevented the flexible autonomous machines from reaching their full potential - the folding robots are now chip-free.
An origami-inspired robot designed by a UCLA-led team that can reverse direction when either of its antennae senses an obstacle. Image Credit: Wenzhong Yan/UCLA
The Vast Potential of the Origami Robot: From Manufacturing to Incision-free Surgery
The ancient Japanese art of paper folding has inspired scientists to develop modern, innovative robots. For several years, scientists have been developing folding autonomous machines out of flexible, thin materials. This building style is believed to complement the growing cache of open-source coding tools to bridge the gap between scientists who code robots and scientists who build them. Origami robots have the potential to cause a shift in how we make and use robots.
The innovative autonomous machines have great potential in a number of applications. They are lightweight and can perform dynamic movements thanks to the geometry of their folds as well as the variety of shapes that they can be configured into. They are also relatively cheap to make, simpler in design, and more compact than traditionally constructed robots, making them easier to store and transport.
As a result, these robots have the potential for use in numerous industries. In manufacturing, applications include increasing the flexibility of tooling and assembly lines, allowing for customized production. In medicine, they can be used at a much smaller scale where their reconfiguration capability can be leveraged to develop origami pills that unfold into larger objects inside the body, thus facilitating incision-free surgery. Finally, the robots can also be used to support education. Students can easily experiment with building their own custom robots thanks to the availability of the materials used to construct them, helping them to learn computational thinking.
Previously, however, these robots had been limited by the necessity to incorporate rigid computer chips that are traditionally needed to give the robot its advanced sensing and analyzing capabilities. Now, a team led by the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering has overcome this barrier with their novel, chip-free design.
Building a Chip-free Robot
Published in Nature Communications, the multidisciplinary team describes their novel fabrication technique for origami robots that does not require semiconductor-based components. Their designs overcome the need to add extra weight to the thin-sheet construction of the foldable robots, thus making them harder to fold and limiting their capabilities. The paper details how chip-free robots can perform a number of complex tasks without the need to add semiconductors to the design.
Instead of chips, the team embedded electrically conductive, flexible materials into polyester film sheets. As a result, the team created an intelligent system of transistors that can be integrated with the sensors and actuators needed to perform complex tasks. The team then programmed the sheet with simple functions analogous to semiconductors. Once constructed into the folded robot, the team demonstrated its ability to sense, analyze and respond precisely to its environment.
The “OrigaMechs,” as they are known, are a new class of origami robots that combine the attributes associated with origami folding-based fabrication alongside high-level capabilities and autonomy that were previously inaccessible to origami robots.
Future Possibilities for Chip-free Origami Robots
To demonstrate the versatility and potential of the OrigaMechs, the team produced three prototypes. The first was an insect-like walking robot capable of reversing its direction when an obstacle is sensed by its antennae. The second, is a Venus flytrap-like robot that uses jaw sensors to detect “prey”, triggering the closing of its jaw. Finally, a reprogrammable two-wheeled robot capable of following geometric pattern-designed paths.
During the demonstrations, the robots were connected to a power source. However, the researchers intend to continue developing their innovation so that the robots would ultimately be fitted with an onboard storage system in the form of thin-film lithium batteries.
In the future, the robots may be used to work in extreme environments, such as those with intense radio frequency signals, high electrostatic discharges, or strong radiative or magnetic fields, where other chip-based robots may fail. Ankur Mehta, the study’s principal investigator and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of UCLA’s Laboratory for Embedded Machines and Ubiquitous Robots said, “these types of dangerous or unpredictable scenarios, such as during a natural or manmade disaster, could be where origami robots proved to be especially useful”. There is also a potential for the robots to be used in space missions, although this will be a long off, requiring much more development.
Overall, the research has overcome a key limitation of previous origami robots, which can now be exploited and leveraged into a wide range of novel applications.
Rus, D. and Sung, C. (2018) Spotlight on origami robots, Science Robotics, 3(15). https://doi.org/10.1126/scirobotics.aat0938.
Yan, W. et al. (2023) Origami-based integration of robots that sense, decide, and respond, Nature Communications, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-37158-9.
Source: University of California - Los Angeles
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