Origami is inspiring a new research discipline in the engineering sector. The Japanese form of paper-folding, originally an ancient recreational artistic activity, has stepped into the modern age and is now being applied to the realisation of purposeful three-dimensional structures folded from a single flat sheet. Among other areas, this emerging practise is now benefiting robotic development.
Origami is particularly useful in the soft robotics field, where machines are built entirely with malleable materials for unique flexibility. In the past couple of decades, mathematicians and engineers have been pioneering the potential of paper-folding to construct objects that are capable of self-assembly and movement.
This has been influenced, in part, by structures seen in nature. The distinctive crease of the ‘Miura’ fold is a good example of this, as it mimics the organic design we see in a gathered plant bud as it unfolds and opens out, for instance. This intricate pattern is repeated across many other flowering plants and also in countless insects, like beetles. The Miura fold has been utilised, in origami engineering, because as a structural form it is especially flexible. Features including the ability to become very small (whilst retaining its core strength, thus making it difficult to damage), as well as being an easy fold to open and close, make the Miura a good option for soft robotics. However, origami has come a long way from hand-folding, as it would have traditionally been achieved, and there are now computer programs that aid the design process configuring an accurate fold pattern, without the need for manual input.
Using this principle, a team of researchers, engineers and computer scientists at the Wyss Institute, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape in just four minutes and can move around without any human intervention, from a piece of paper. Prior to being folded, the flat panels are embedded with electronics and connected by hinges. The team also used materials that, when heated to 100 degrees Celsius, will activate the contraction and folding of the machine. Robert J. Wood, Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard’s SEAS and a key contributor to the project, was recognised for his work in the development of biologically inspired robots earlier this year, being named one of fourteen ‘Emerging Explorers’ by the National Geographic Society. Of their recent success, he said “Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years”.
Their findings are also helping to build research that could lead to several useful applications in the future. Firstly, the ‘origami robots’ can be controlled remotely so they could be used in environments that are, conceivably, too dangerous for people to go. Building shelters in conflict zones or much further a-field, placing satellites into space, are just two examples of how their autonomous assembly will assist us in the years to come.
Already origami engineering is making the idea of ‘search-and-rescue bots’ a real possibility. In its thin two-dimensional state and without hard edges, the robot can fit into tight spaces and then be deployed, again remotely. As Dr Jesse Silverberg, a Physics Graduate Student at Cornell University, explains “Imagine this: a building collapses, and you have a snake-like robot that can go into debris. And as it unfolds, it goes from a soft robot to a rigid barrier that could protect people. It folds one way to crawl into tight spaces and another way to become a protective barrier”.
Researchers are also investigating the capabilities of these bots on a minuscular scale, using the folding properties of DNA, to produce a range of tiny objects that could be used as a catalyst to administer medicine into the body. As motion becomes better established in origami robotics, we could find these ‘nanobots’ being tasked to crawl around our bodies, detecting and diagnosing any abnormalities they come across. Although, I’m not sure how well this particular application will be welcomed, thankfully it won’t happen anytime soon.
Origami is helping to reinvent the way engineers approach a problem and the experiment at Wyss Institute, has demonstrated its benefits in building machines that can interact with the environment around them, with fewer cost and time implications. For the most part it has already been well received. As Silverberg suggests “If you look up into space, or the operating room, you’re likely to see origami and it may one day save a life”. Concluding, “The bottom line is that the potential applications of paper folding are just really cool and I think it’s safe to say that the future is going to be awesome”.