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Robot metamorphosis: Watch a robot shed its skin for different tasks

Origami robots look simple, but they solve several problems that plague traditional robots.

An origami robot -- which is already cool in its own right -- can now wear layers of outfits so that it can shed and discard them depending on the task at hand. Each outfit is made of sheets of plastic that have been designed to fold into specific shapes to accomplish different tasks, such as walking, rolling, sailing on water, and gliding through the air.

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After inventing the first-ever untethered bionic exoskeleton, he broke from his former company. Now this inventor is back with another breakthrough.

A team of roboticists at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) invented the robot, called "Primer," which transforms itself by wearing different exoskeletons that give the robot new abilities. The research is described in a paper published in Science Robotics today.

Origami robots look simple, but they solve several problems that plague traditional robots: Power, size, and cost. They are lightweight, easy to manufacture, and they can be controlled by magnets so there's no need for bulky batteries. CSAIL director Daniela Rus previously developed a robot that can be swallowed like a pill that becomes a tiny surgeon inside the body and 3D-printed robots that can walk right out of the printer. Now, Primer can do a wide variety of tasks by wearing multiple outfits.

"If we want robots to help us do things, it's not very efficient to have a different one for each task," Rus said, in an MIT statement. "With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different 'accessories' to use in different situations."

Primer (bottom) uses exoskeletons to transform into clockwise from top: glider-bot, walk-bot, wheel-bot, boat-bot. (Image: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL)

The researchers were inspired by animals that transform themselves, such as a caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. After the robot finishes its first task, it can shed its skin (by dissolving it in water) and then use another outfit for the next task. When heat is applied, the outfits quickly fold themselves into shapes such as a wheel for rolling or a bucket for carrying objects.

"Our approach shows that origami-inspired manufacturing allows us to have robotic components that are versatile, accessible and reusable," says Rus.

This approach could be especially useful for space, where size and adaptability are essential. The lightweight exoskeletons could help save precious fuel for deep space missions. A future Mars rover could be equipped with a bunch of origami robots and their wardrobes.

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