Sure, this adorable little inchworm robot looks cute. But just wait for the day when more sophisticated versions start printing and assembling themselves from scratch — and all without human oversight.
We’ve seen self-assembling robots before, but not one that came out of a 3D printer.
This printed inchworm robot was developed by Samuel Felton and colleagues at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.
IEET Spectrum explains how it works:
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.
The tricky part of the process is the folding of the robot itself: installing the battery and motor is trivial enough for a human to do, which means that a relatively simple pick and place robot should have no problems doing the same thing. 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.
“Robot Self-Assembly by Folding: A Printed Inchworm Robot,” was presented this week at 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2013 in Germany.