A multidisciplinary team led by researchers at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering has created a new fabrication technique for fully foldable robots that can perform a variety of complex tasks without relying on semiconductors.
Recently, roboticists have been using a technique similar to origami to develop autonomous machines out of thin, flexible sheets. These lightweight robots are simpler and cheaper to make, as well as being more compact, enabling easier storage and transport.
However, the rigid computer chips traditionally needed to enable advanced robot capabilities – sensing, analysing and responding to the environment – add extra weight to the thin sheets and makes them harder to fold. The semiconductor-based components therefore have to be added after a robot has taken its final shape.
However, by embedding flexible and electrically conductive materials into a pre-cut, thin polyester film sheet, the research team created a system of information-processing units, or transistors, that can be integrated with sensors and actuators. They then programmed the sheet with simple computer analogical functions that emulate those of semiconductors. Once cut, folded and assembled, the sheet transformed into an autonomous robot that can sense, analyse and act in response to its environments with precision. The researchers named their robots OrigaMechs.
‘This work leads to a new class of origami robots with expanded capabilities and levels of autonomy while maintaining the favourable attributes associated with origami-folding-based fabrication,’ said Wenzhong Yan, a UCLA mechanical engineering doctoral student.
OrigaMechs derived their computing capabilities from a combination of mechanical origami multiplexed switches created by the folds and programmed Boolean logic commands, such as ‘AND,’ ‘OR’ and ‘NOT’. The switches enabled a mechanism that selectively output electrical signals based on the variable pressure and heat input into the system.
Using the new approach, the team built three robots to demonstrate the system’s potential: an insect-like walking robot that reverses direction when either of its antennae senses an obstacle; a Venus flytrap-like robot that envelops ‘prey’ when both of its jaw sensors detect an object; and a reprogrammable two-wheeled robot that can move along pre-designed paths of different geometric patterns.
The robots had to be tethered to a power source for the demonstration, but according to the researchers, the long-term goal is to outfit the autonomous origami robots with an embedded energy-storage system powered by thin-film lithium batteries.
The chip-free design may lead to robots that are capable of working in extreme environments – strong radiative or magnetic fields, and places with intense radio frequency signals or high electrostatic discharges – where traditional semiconductor-based electronics might fail to function.
‘These types of dangerous or unpredictable scenarios, such as during a natural or human-made disaster, could be where origami robots proved to be especially useful,’ said Ankur Mehta, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of UCLA’s Laboratory for Embedded Machines and Ubiquitous Robots. ‘The robots could be designed for specialty functions and manufactured on demand very quickly. Also, while it’s a very long way away, there could be environments on other planets where explorer robots that are impervious to those scenarios would be very desirable.’
Pre-assembled robots built by this flexible cut-and-fold technique could be transported in flat packaging for significant space savings. This is important in scenarios such as space missions, where every cubic centimetre counts. The low-cost, lightweight and simple-to-fabricate robots could also lead to innovative educational tools or new types of toys and games.
The research has been published in Nature Communications.