Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, August 08, 2014

Robots Without Limit

"It folds up and walks away completely on its own."
"We all begin life as single sheets of cells that fold to develop complex organs."
"[Future robots'] brains [and] bodies [could be changed and designed to fit the job]."
Michael Tolley, Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory
The self-folding crawling robot in three stages Seth Kroll/Wyss Institute

"Our big dream is to really make the fabrication of robots fast and inexpensive."
Daniela Rus, director, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Daniela Rus, -- MIT News

My, how innovative science projects promise to change the world we live in! Although it's difficult to imagine the immense variety of ways in which the world will become accustomed to using robots -- used now extensively in manufacturing production lines, requiring far fewer human workers to toil at robotic jobs -- it would have been equally difficult for people forty years ago to imagine just how vastly the Internet and technology would change our lives, and now it's all commonplace.

Michael Tolley, a young Canadian scientist originally from Kingston, Ontario, who studied at McGill and then Cornell universities before ending up at Harvard three years ago, with the intention of spending his working life designing machines that self-assemble, shot a video of his "origami robot" which folded itself up and crept away like a well-mannered turtle.

The video was released by the journal Science, accompanied with a report on the "self-folding" machine, and its introduction has generated lots of interest in "real-life Transformers", simply complex machines capable of springing to life on missions that humans are unable to commit to. Or, imagine having possession of a robot that could be directed to perform household duties on command? Or take the family pet out for a daily constitutional?

Robot shops capable of designing self-assembling robots in a matter of mere hours, located within communities, just like coffee shops currently are, to sell the resulting products to the consuming public selecting the design most useful to them, is just around the corner, so to speak, of the near future. Buying the convenience of assistance in areas of life that can be both mundane and complex.

Michael Tolley now works with another scientist, Sam Felton, and together they created the first machine to begin its life entirely flat, then emerge through a pre-designed process as a three-dimensional object capable of walking and turning on its own. Rudimentary materials at low cost, like sheets of paper and sheets of Shrinky Dinks (children's toy made of "shape memory polymers") which harden when heated were used.

The 3D function was etched onto the polymer sheets representing a flexible circuit dictating where and when the robot should self-fold. A microcontroller and two tiny motors make the robot move. Power is battery-supplied to heat the polymers in vital locations to enable the robot to hinge and fold itself into shape. When the folds cool off and the robot becomes stiff, the microcontroller signals the robot to crawl off. This process took the demonstration model four minutes to complete.

In this successful experimental model, 82 of 84 hinges folded properly. The design for the 3D objects are readily adaptable to being altered or edited; their "brains" and "bodies" amenable to changed designs to match a particular job. Mr. Tolley envisions along with his colleagues, self-folding machines morphing into satellites self-assembling in orbit, or machines slipped flat into a collapsed building and once inside, assembling themselves for perhaps search-and-rescue missions.

Imagine going to your local Ikea store and bringing home a piece of furniture that has been blueprinted to assemble itself; no assembly required would be a huge boost to both sales and buyer-relief from having to figure out not-always-readily-decipherable assembly instructions for the clumsy-inclined.

"It's a breakthrough in terms of easy-to-lay-out and easy-to-manufacture using flat technology which then springs to 3D life. That's a really intriguing idea. It is not clear yet which is the one that is going to win [robot design]. I'm not sure this is it, but I am really excited to see the scientific exploration of the possibilities", said robotics expert Alan Mackworth of the University of British Columbia.

The self-folding robot is viewed as a "research milestone", leading to more competitive pricing of industrial robots and greater access for individuals to produce robots at home, feels Anqi Xu of the Centre for Intelligent Machines at McGill University. In which case, perhaps in the near-enough future a proliferation of 3D printers will lead to the home-manufacture of 3D robots. Where might it all lead to?

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