Flat-packed robots could become low-cost amateur spaceprobes

Origami and Shrinky-dinks lets this robot go from flat-pack to ready-to-walk in 4 minutes. Source: Harvard University

Origami and Shrinky-dinks lets this robot go from flat-pack to ready-to-walk in 4 minutes. Source: Harvard University

A robot that builds itself could let space explorers design future space probes. The low-cost nature of the design also opens doors for amateur robot-makers to make space exploring robots of their own.

A team of scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wanted to find an accessible way to build inexpensive robots quickly. They looked at the way the Japanese art of origami lets you build complex structures from a simple piece of paper. They also looked at the way folding occurs in nature - from the unfurling of leaves and flowers to protein-folding.

Combined these inspirations with techniques familiar to the maker community led the scientists to create a self-assembling robot. Printed flexible circuits to create the robots control and self-assembly systems. Polystyrene - the same plastic used in Shrinky Dinks - provide the mechanism for the folding to happen. Laser-cut paper provides the structure for the final robot.

The scientists sandwiched these elements together and added a battery. The robot’s micro-controller sent a current running through the electric circuit that heated the polystyrene. As the plastic shrank - just like with Shrinky Dinks - it bent the paper to create  the origami folds. After letting the plastic cool for a few minutes, the micro-controller turned on the robot’s motors and it crawled away. Making the flat-pack structure and circuits took less than 2 hours while the self assembly took 4 minutes. It took the team over 5 hours to create a similar robot using a fast 3D printer.

In this video Harvard PhD candidate Sam Felton and Professor Rob Wood discuss how they developed the robot and show it assembling itself:

Felton, the lead author of the final paper, said in Harvard’s press release, "Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there—they could take images, collect data, and more.”

But the technique isn’t just for the professionals. The technique opens the doors for amateur robot-makers to develop new ways of making robots do interesting things. 

According to Nature Magazine’s report, the group spent $11,000 developing this first robot. Now that they’ve figured out how not to do it - early prototypes burst into flames - the group estimates that anyone could build one of these robots for as little as $100: $20 for the paper and Shrinky-dinks structure and $80 for the electronics.

Many local makers spaces have the machines needed to create flat-pack robots, including solid inkjet printers and laser etching systems. The team used free software like Origamizer to design the folds. The researchers used SolidWorks to design the linkages for the robot's legs, but free 3D modeling software could do the job.

We've already seen how amateur technology will let millions of people build their own satellites. The new technique gives amateur space explorers another tool for creating their own space missions. A future project could land a spacecraft on the Moon loaded with hundreds of flat-packed robots that fold themselves into their final form and start walking across the lunar landscape. Or a student project could squeeze a flat-packed telescope inside the small 10-cm CubeSat. Once in orbit, the telescope's circuits would accordion the mirrors and lenses into a much larger focal length.

If you want to learn more about the new development, the original Science Magazine article is behind a paywall doi:10.1126/science.1252610, but access to the authors' abstract and supplemental material is free and gives plenty of tips to get you started. The Harvard press release and this article at Nature Magazine provide more background, images, and videos of the robot in action.