When you bake a chocolate chip cookie in the oven, it actually triples in volume, because there’s serious science at work. Building robots doesn’t need to be much more complicated, according to a pair of research papers released by MIT, the University of Zurich, and the University of Tokyo.
The researchers have created a process in which a 2-D laser-cut piece of plastic—shaped by an algorithm—can be placed into an oven, and as it bakes, the cut-out folds into itself precisely, creating a 3-D structure. (Have you ever folded a piece of paper into a cube? It’s pretty much the same idea.)
That unto itself is an impressive accomplishment, but this process—known as "self-folding"—is something we’ve seen before. What makes this approach so novel is that they can also perform a very similar process to bake complex electronics—like sensors or actuators—from flat shapes. In other words, they can bake the whole suite of hardware that gives robots the muscular framework to move.
"We have this big dream of the hardware compiler, where you can specify, ‘I want a robot that will play with my cat,’ or ‘I want a robot that will clean the floor,’" researcher Daniela Rus told MIT News. "And from this high-level specification, you actually generate a working device."
The researchers have proven their methodology through simplistic robots. But as the idea is refined, the researchers could create what is essentially the flat-pack-furniture process of the robotic age. It’s one of many approaches to the future of robotics. (Other MIT labs have created self-assembling robotic sand and advanced 3-D printed structures that can change shape under electricity.) Which ideas will win out is still unclear. But for designers, it’s an exciting time. Each of these technologies holds the potential of redefining the way we build, customize, and interact with the things around us. As our material and manufacturing limitations fade away, our imaginations are free to run wild.
[Hat tip: Gizmag]