Tiny origami robots are making serious strides in biotech. If you’re picturing miniature paper storks marching through an intestinal tract, you’re not wrong. Origami robots are typically small, flat pieces of malleable material that fold or unfold into pre-designed shapes when heated. The layer that reacts to heat is often sandwiched between materials that have been scored, forcing the bot to fold into a particular shape. Their movements are controlled using magnetic fields and they don’t require tethering (a fancy word for a power cable). As a result, they can be incredibly small, allowing them to wander through the human body...
In 2016, researchers at MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology developed a prototype that can fit inside a pill. Once swallowed, the outer shell dissolves and the bot automatically unfolds itself. The researchers guided the robot across the wall of a pig’s stomach to collect a button battery lodged in the tissue (side note: roughly 3,500 button batteries are swallowed every year - it’s a problem). This particular bot moves in a “stick-slip” motion (sounds terrifying, but it’s basically a jerky crawl). Tiny magnets attached to the robot interact with externally controlled magnetic fields, causing it to swivel and pivot on cue. In 2020, scientists at Ohio State developed an origami robot with separate compartments that compress and expand to mimic the movement of a caterpillar.
What does the future hold for origami robots? Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) had the idea to create origami exoskeletons for robots to wear. After all, why design several robots to do different tasks when you could just build one that wears multiple hats. The team at CSAIL created tiny exoskeletons that can snap into the shape of a glider, wheel or even a boat. The main robot picks up whatever hat it needs for the job and gets to work. Although these prototypes are fairly small, the application could be scaled up to larger models, and may even help build colonies in space. Hats off to the origami bots!
Image by Melanie Gonick/MIT