Origami principles can unlock the potential of tiny robots

Researchers from the University of Michigan have demonstrated that the behavior rules underpinning the Japanese art of origami could expand tiny robots' capabilities. The researchers say that the principles hold the potential to expand these little machines' capabilities and create the potential for greater use in a wide range of fields, from medical equipment to infrastructure sensing.

Evgueni Filipov, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan said that the team has "come up with a new way to design, fabricate, and actuate microbots." He says the team is the first to bring advanced ergonomic building capabilities into one integrated microbot system. The robots designed by the team can form one shape, complete a task, and then change to a second shape for an additional task, and so on.

So far, microbots have had limited movement impacting their ability to perform useful tasks. The researchers increase the range of motion by allowing the robots to fold large angles. The robots can fold at up to 90-degrees or more. The larger the folds, the more complex shapes robots can take.

The approach the researchers have taken allows the microbots to complete their range of motion up to 80 times per second. That speed is said to be a faster pace than most of microbots can handle. Typically, small robots require an outside stimulus to activate like heat or a magnetic field. University of Michigan scientists added a layer of gold and a polymer layer that acts as an onboard actuator eliminating the need for external stimulus.

A tether currently controls the robots, but eventually, an onboard battery and microcontroller will apply the electric current. When the current passes through the gold layer, it creates heat to control the motions of the robot. The material also can recover its original shape.