Seth Kroll / Wyss Institute
Seth Kroll / Wyss Institute

Suggesting a future where robots can be made to order, Boston researchers have created a robot that starts out as a flat sheet, folds itself into shape Origami-style, and crawls away unassisted.

The robot was built by Sam Felton, a graduate student at the Harvard, but robotics power duo Daniela Rus, professor of computer science at MIT, and Robert Wood, head of bio-inspired robotics at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, are also on board this design team.

The researchers say it’s one step towards cheaply manufacturing robots that can be custom-built, quickly, for a whole range of applications.

They presented their new bot and technique in the journal Science this week.

The parts are simple: The bot body is a sheet of paper coated with Shrinkydink – a plastic material that contracts when heated.

A microcontroller, batteries and motor make up the bot’s brains and brawn. The total cost of the robot is $100, with the non-electronic bits adding up to a mere $20. When batteries are plugged in, the microcontroller heats the hinges, which fold in a pre-set direction. It takes four minutes for the heated plastic to cool and harden, after which the motors kick into gear.

The bot scampers away. The demo looks pretty incredible, but the researchers are most excited about the potential that one day, buying a robot could be as simple as a walk to Staples.

In a teleconference with reporters, Rus suggested that someone could walk to a 24-hour robot manufacturing facility, order something as whimsical as a toy for her cat, then return in 24 hours to pick up her order.

Cost and versatility are key themes in Rus and Wood’s work, and both have been tinkering with self-folding mechanical systems. In October last year, Rus showed off a cluster of gymnastic robotic cubes that can rearrange themselves on demand. Wood, who has been working on insect-like tiny flying robots for some time, had one member of his team design prototypes that can pop out of a flat mold and snap into place.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and innovation for BetaBoston. Email her: nidhi at betaboston dot com Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Google+

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