When people worry whether robots are going to take all the jobs, usually the techno-utopian’s answer is that robots will also create new jobs, too. Because we’ll need lots of people to design and build our robot overlords, of course.
But in the future, technological advancements may even automate those robot-building jobs too.
This future is hinted at in an announcement today from Harvard University and MIT researchers in the journal Science, demonstrating the potential for sophisticated machines to build and assemble themselves.
The team has built what they call a “real-life transformer”–a self-folding robot that, in four minutes flat, uses origami techniques to morph from a flat sheet with embedded electronics into a functional machine that walks. Most parts are produced using a simple laser cutter.
The engineers were inspired by self-assembly in nature, such as the folding of proteins and human embryo cells that begin as single sheets and organize themselves into complex organs. The team and others have long tried to mimic that sort of design, but the challenge has been to create machines that can initiate folding and then function automatically without human help, says co-author Robert Wood, a researcher at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
For example, the team previously developed a robotic inchworm, but it required human involvement to fold. The new robot, in comparison, acts autonomously after a battery is attached. It’s able to do one simple thing: crawl and turn after it’s assembled.
The robot is made of readily available materials that cost about $100 in total, including programmed hinges that bend at specific angles and are embedded in a clear, flat “shape memory” composite that contracts when the temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius. The design also contains two motors to control the two legs, two batteries, and a micro-controller that coordinates it all.
Earlier this year, the researchers presented a paper on robots that could self-assemble after being baked, using a similar setup. This time, the idea is that small, heat-generating electronic circuits in the hinges are triggered in a particular order to activate the material. The hinges fold one by one and allow the researchers to design planned 3-D shapes with more control than they had using an oven.
Not only could the robots assemble by themselves, but the design is also automated by 3-D origami design software that lays out the crease patterns. Otherwise, it might take a person a long time to work out folding directions that would result in a desired structure and function. In any case, it took 40 prototypes to arrive at the final design.
The applications of the work are wide-ranging, though challenges remain, particularly related to the heat required to trigger the process and size and strength limitations of the materials. The machine the team built could be used to access confined spaces in search-and-rescue situations or, packaged together, could be delivered to space and then assemble themselves into satellites. Lead author Sam Felton, a PhD student at Harvard’s microrobotics lab, says before that happens, the material could be used in existing designs and products. For example, shape memory materials might be useful for deploying solar panels on a satellite, rather than the entire structure.
More broadly, such structures could change the process for manufacturing robots, making them easier to customize. (3-D printers today perform similar bespoke manufacturing tasks but struggle when dealing with anything that has electronic components.) Felton likens this to re-designing the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner to instead scrub the floors. If its manufacturer, iRobot, wanted to do this today it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars retooling an assembly line. With self-folding manufacture, it might be as simple as changing the design of the digital plans and pressing start.
Felton says the long-term vision would be for anyone to be able to order up a robot that fulfills a need they describe in simple terms. “If you have a Word document and you want to change a few words, you just re-print it at your home printer” says Felton. “You could take a robots digital plan, change a few things, and re-print it.”