'Origami' Soft Robots Can Carry 1000 Times Their Own Weight

Monday, 27 November 2017 - 5:38PM
Technology
Robotics
Monday, 27 November 2017 - 5:38PM
'Origami' Soft Robots Can Carry 1000 Times Their Own Weight
MIT/CSAIL
The future of robotics is here, and it's squishy. As much as we imagine the robot age to be a world of cold, impersonal steel machines integrating themselves into our daily lives, in reality, future robotic helpers will be soft and pliable, as engineers work to create machines that are bendable and adaptable, in order to fulfill a greater number of niche roles in society.

There are plenty of different kinds of flexible robots in development, but one creation, scientists from MIT CSAIL and Harvard's Wyss Institute have made a breakthrough in finding a way to give these squishy robots far greater strength than they could have possessed previously.

Up to this point, one of the trade-offs involved in making bendable robots has been a need to sacrifice raw strength, as those that are made of softer material won't necessarily have a great lifting power. In Dungeons and Dragons terms, there are only so many points that can be allocated between Strength and Dexterity, and engineers have had to choose whether they want a machine that's adaptable, or capable.

These new robots, though, gain additional strength from a concertina design structure that's inspired by origami paper craft. When folded the right way, a piece of paper can stand up to an impressive amount of pressure, and similarly, these new robots are able to lift up to a thousand times their own weight.

 
These robots are built around an origami-esque series of creases in their flat plastic shape. As with organic muscles, applying a current to these robotic limbs will cause the shape to contract, folding the droids along existing lines to help them to perform the action that's been hardwired into their design.

As impressive as this may sound, there are drawbacks. As with all robots, these creations are, to a certain extent, limited by a need to balance flexibility and raw strength. The additional lifting power that these bots have achieved come from a very specific design structure which means that the robots aren't particularly capable of adapting to a new task like some squishy bots. Similarly, as the insect kingdom proves, it's easy to lift hundreds or thousands of times your own weight when you don't actually weigh anything.
 
That said, while these robots are still limited, there's definitely uses to be had for simple, lightweight machines that can be easily transported to different locations to perform their one specialty task. No, they can't switch forms on the fly to adapt to new objectives, and they're not even made of delicious gummy candy, but they still can potentially serve a useful purpose that would otherwise need to be fulfilled by far heavier specialist equipment.

What's more, while these machines aren't capable of performing a variety of different tasks, they can each do one thing very well without a need for a lot of instructions. There's no need to a complex series of instructions to be sent to the bots, as they function in such a small number of ways.


This, it's predicted, will come in handy for assembly line robots that only ever need to do a few different tasks, and their makeup make them a lot more useful for handling delicate equipment or products without a danger of accidentally damaging the things they're helping to build or organize - for example, these origami robot arms can be trusted to take good care of peaches or other soft fruits without accidentally squishing them.

This isn't the market leader in soft robot technology, but then, not everything needs to be cutting edge. The robots of the future will be adaptable, and that'll likely mean that different kinds of soft robots will be employed in different jobs. Some tasks will require an adaptable machine that can easily switch between roles, while other jobs will be perfectly suited to a relatively cheap, lightweight and simple robot that does its job without thinking too hard about what it's doing.

Perhaps the hardest thing about preparing for the robot future is the fact that there won't be a single unifying construction material for the droids we'll see in everyday use. As it turns out, it's not impossible that some common robots will look less like WALL-E or the T-1000, and will instead look an awful lot like an origami swan.
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