Recently at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Germany, Harvard and MIT robotics students unveiled their newest creation, a self-assembling 3D printed “inch worm” robot.
Designed to demonstrate a concept called sequential folding, a self-assembly process, the robots are printed in a completely flat configuration. From this flattened state, the robots are animated with a jolt of electricity thatcauses their flattened bodies to fold into the desired configuration.
According to IEET Spectrum, “Self-folding happens thanks to shape memory polymers that contract when heated. By printing these polymers on one side of a hinged substrate and then heating them, the hinge can be made to bend. The amount of bend is controlled by etching flexible connectors that connect both sides of the hinge, and with enough hinges heated in the right order, it's possible to create fairly complex folded shapes, including things like interlocking structural elements.”
Researchers are interesting in this field primarily because building robots is a time consuming and expensive enterprise. If their research is successful, the price and time it takes to create a robot could be reduced significantly. “This means that these robots have the potential to scale massively: they can be printed out of cheap materials, they fold themselves together, and another robot can plonk some hardware on them and they're good to go.”
Watch a video of the robot in action:
Images and Video Courtesy of Harvard