A team of engineers used little more than paper to create a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape in four minutes flat.
The robot is then able to crawl away without human intervention, according to a Harvard University press release.
The advance demonstrates the potential to build, quick and cheap sophisticated machines capable of interacting with the environment, and to automate much of the design and assembly process.
The method draws inspiration from self-assembly in nature.
"Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we've been chasing for many years," said senior author Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, according to the release.
A paper on the robot was published in the journal Science this week.
Along with expanding the scope of ways one can create robots, the advance harbors potential for exotic applications, according to the university.
"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," said lead author Sam Felton, a doctoral student at SEAS, according to the release.
The robots are the culmination of a number of advancements made by the tema over the last couple of years, including the development of a self-folding lamp, and a printed robotic inchworm.
The robot is the first capable of building itself and performing the function without help from a human.
"Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet," Felton said.
In order to make the robot, the team used computer-design tools to inform the optimal design and fold pattern. After about 40 prototypes, Felton was able to make one that was capable of folding up and walking away.
The design took about two hours to assemble using a method that required the power of origami, the ancient Japanese art where a single sheet of paper can be folded into interesting structures.
By using the origami approach, researchers avoided using the normal "nuts and bolts" approach to assemble the robot.
The robot operates on a timer, waiting approximately 10 seconds after the batteries are installed to start folding.
Wood said that the long-term goal of the project is to have a facility that people can go to around the clock in their community when they might need robotic assistance, ranging from house sweeping to detecting gas leaks in a neighborhood.
"You would be able to come in, describe what you need in fairly basic terms, and come back an hour later to get your robotic helper," Wood said. All told, each robot cost about $100, but only $20 for the body without the motors, batteries, and microcontroller.
Work was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.
"This achievement by Rob and his team changes the way we think about manufacturing, in that the machine fabricates itself," said Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School, and professor of bioengineering at Harvard SEAS, according to the release. "The days of big, rigid, robots that sit in place and carry out the same repetitive task day in and out are fading fast."