Each exoskeleton starts out as a sheet of plastic onto which the robot, known as Primer, rolls. Heat is then applied to cause the exoskeleton to fold around the robot in a motion akin to a piece of origami assembling itself. The folds are created by lines cut into the sheet of plastic, with their depths responsible for the angle of the fold.
The exoskeletons allow the robot to adapt to different situations. One gives it the ability to roll, meaning it can move twice as fast as without the exoskeleton; another is shaped like a boat, letting it float on water and carry nearly twice its weight. It even has a glider-shaped exoskeleton that allows it to soar when falling from a height.
The primer itself is only a couple of centimetres in size and is controlled by an external magnetic field. Once it has finished with a particular exoskeleton, it can ditch the covering by dipping itself in water.
Mini surgeons and explorers
“In the future, we imagine robots like this could become mini surgeons, squished into a pill that you swallow,” says Daniela Rus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Once in the stomach, the tiny surgeons could use different exoskeletons to cut tissue samples or deliver medicine – applications that are still a long way off but could have many advantages. “Some aspects of surgery could be done without incisions, pain, or infection,” says Rus.
The robots could also be used for exploration tasks, or monitoring abandoned warehouses, says Jamie Paik at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “This is a great example of how origami robots can take on diverse tasks using different clothing, meaning that you can mould the robot to different situations,” she says.-
Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL
Journal reference: Science Robotics, DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aao4369-