OrigaMechs, The Fully Foldable Robot

A multidisciplinary team led by researchers at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering have been working on a new fabrication technique for fully foldable robots that can perform a variety of complex tasks without relying on semiconductors.  They named their robots “OrigaMechs,” short for Origami MechanoBots.

Much work has been performed on adapting origami – the traditional art of paper folding – for the creation of autonomous machines as they are cost-effective to manufacture, and their form makes them more convenient for storage and transportation. However, adding rigid computer chips for advanced capabilities such as sensing and analyzing adds extra weight and makes them difficult to fold. 

The team solved this problem by embedding flexible and electrically conductive materials into a pre-cut, thin polyester film sheet. This created a system of information-processing units which could be integrated with sensors and actuators. They then programmed the sheet with simple computer analogical functions that emulate those of semiconductors. Once cut, folded and assembled, the sheet transformed into an autonomous robot that could sense, analyze and act in response to their environments with precision. 

Using the new method, the team built three robots to demonstrate the system’s potential: an insect-like walking robot that reverses direction when either of its antennae senses an obstacle; a Venus flytrap-like robot that envelops a “prey” when both of its jaw sensors detect an object; and a reprogrammable two-wheeled robot that can move along pre-designed paths of different geometric patterns. 

“This work leads to a new class of origami robots with expanded capabilities and levels of autonomy while maintaining the favorable attributes associated with origami folding-based fabrication,” said study lead author Wenzhong Yan.

The chip-free design has the potential for robots being capable of working in extreme environments where traditional semiconductor-based electronics might fail to function.

“These types of dangerous or unpredictable scenarios, such as during a natural or manmade disaster, could be where origami robots proved to be especially useful,” said study principal investigator Ankur Mehta, director of UCLA’s Laboratory for Embedded Machines and Ubiquitous Robots. “The robots could be designed for specialty functions and manufactured on demand very quickly. Also, while it’s a very long way away, there could be environments on other planets where explorer robots that are impervious to those scenarios would be very desirable.”