The Unfolding of a New Era in Robotics

Origami robots just got smarter thanks to a new foldable, transistor-like switch developed by a team of researchers at UCLA.

Nick Bild
1 year agoRobotics
Origami-based robot with foldable logic gates (📷: W. Yan et al.)

Origami robots are autonomous machines that are constructed by folding two-dimensional materials into complex, functional three-dimensional structures. These robots are highly versatile. They can be designed to perform a wide range of tasks, from manipulating small objects to navigating difficult terrain. Their compact size and flexibility allow them to move in ways that traditional robots cannot, making them ideal for use in environments that are hard to reach.

Another notable feature of origami-based robots is their low cost. Because they are constructed using simple materials and techniques, they can be produced relatively inexpensively. This makes them an attractive option for many researchers and companies looking to develop new robotics applications.

There are many potential applications for origami robots. They could be used in search and rescue missions, where their small size and flexibility would allow them to navigate through rubble and debris. They could also be used in manufacturing settings, where their ability to manipulate small objects could be put to use in assembly lines.

However, the thin sheets of material that compose these robots is not a good platform for the installation of traditional, rigid computer chips. The extra weight can hinder the robots in their ability to carry out their tasks. Moreover, the rigidity of the chips can make it difficult to fold the material into the proper shape.

Without the data processing capabilities of modern chips, origami-based robots are severely limited in the use cases that they can be applied to. There may be another way to give these machines some intelligence, though, says a team led by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. They have developed a foldable, semiconductor-free means of adding data processing capacity to origami robots.

The Origami MechanoBots, or OrigaMechs, are composed of thin sheets of polyester with electrically conductive traces embedded within them. A component called an origami multiplexed switch (OMS) was created from bistable beams and conductive resistive actuators. These switches are 2-to-1 multiplexers that select between two analog or digital input signals, and forward the chosen input based on a selection signal.

With the OMS switches acting much like transistors, they can be leveraged to act as logic gates, performing functions like AND, OR, and NOT. Tiny transistors are what give modern chips their processing power, so these OMS switches can do the same for origami robots. By chaining logic functions together, any arbitrary computation can be performed. The switches on the OrigaMechs are by no means as small as the nanoscale transistors in today’s semiconductors, so one needs to set their expectations accordingly. Nevertheless, the OMS switches, as they exist today, are sufficient to build autonomous functions into origami robots.

The researchers built several robots to demonstrate the capabilities of the system. In one demonstration, an insect-like robot with instrumented antennae was constructed. When the antennae bumped into an obstacle, it would turn around and continue in the opposite direction. In another experiment, a Venus flytrap-like robot was developed that snaps its jaws shut when some unfortunate “prey” enters its mouth.

Not only is this new system conducive to use with lightweight, foldable robots, but it is also resistant to strong radiative or magnetic fields, and also intense radio frequency signals. These properties could enable origami-based robots to work in extreme environments where robots based on traditional semiconductor technologies would be unstable.

Presently, the origami robots are tethered to a power source via wires, however, the team believes that thin-film lithium batteries could be enough to make them completely self-sufficient in the future. With refinements such as this, rapidly produced swarms of origami robots could one day help rescuers after manmade disasters, or assist space explorers on their missions.

Nick Bild
R&D, creativity, and building the next big thing you never knew you wanted are my specialties.
Latest articles
Sponsored articles
Related articles
Latest articles
Read more
Related articles