Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, explains how her lab uses principles of origami to “program” some seriously cool robots.
Left: This is a demonstration of strength of the artificial muscle. Right: This is a snake-like robotic arm with a flower-like gripper driven by a single vacuum source. Credit: Shuguang Li
Just as origami can transform a piece of paper into a three-dimensional work of art, scientists have now used the techniques to transform thin, flimsy materials like polyester into incredibly strong artificial muscles that can lift a thousand times their weight.
The research team built the muscles by inserting origami-like folding skeletons into flexible plastic, nylon or polyester skins filled with water or air. Then, by sucking the air or water out of them, the researchers were able to make the artificial muscles contract and grab things — just like real muscles due to the movements “programmed” into the devices’ folding skeletons. They describe their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“One thing I’m interested in is making machines that are like ‘Transformers,’” says study author Daniela Rus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Machines that can change their body to match their body to the task they need to do.” In this interview, she discusses her latest work, along with other projects like an ingestible robotic pill that unfolds in the stomach.
“But in nature, things happen in much more elegant ways. And in particular, folding in nature occurs to create a wide spectrum of complex structures, morphofunctional structures.” — Daniela Rus
- Think of two examples of folding in nature. Sketch the system. What is the structure? How does the form interact with the function?
- How were Dr. Rus and her team able to create different types of motions in their origami?
- The robotic pill was inspired by a future where surgeries don’t require cutting. What other applications do you see for this technology? What capabilities would that require of our origami robots?
- Create a drawing of the elephant trunk system that articulates the capabilities that Dr. Rus and her team would like to mimic.
“Robots are made of bodies and of brains that control the bodies.” — Daniela Rus
- What are the components of this robot? What pieces are not described in the interview? Create a diagram of the system for one of the robots Dr. Rus discussed.
- Origami is expanding into the world of robots, but it has been present in the world of satellites since the 1980’s. Have your students dive into origami applications with this investigation into Miura Folds, an origami fold that can compress rigid materials!
- Have students use origami structures to support increasing weights. Use this as an adaptation to the physics exploration that asks students to support the weight of a textbook with one sheet of paper. Here is a primer on some basic origami folds. Now ask students to apply their new knowledge of folds to make passengers safer in a car crash. How might they redesign a car using these principles?
- For more paper manipulation, check out this Spoonful on the innovative techniques used to create complex pop-up books.
- Manu Prakash’s lab designed a paper centrifuge that costs less than one dollar to produce. Get inspired by scientific simplicity by design.
Vocabulary: robot, origami, morphofunctional, muscle, operations
Next Generation Science Standards: ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem, ETS2.A: Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology, SEP2: Developing and Using Models, CCC6: Structure and Function. Can be used to build towards MS-PS2–1, MS-ETS1–1, MS-ETS1–2, HS-PS2–3, and HS-ETS1–2.