MIT’s tiny origami robots hint at future dissolving nano-surgeons

Miniature robots made of polyester or polystyrene can be coated in a thin metal layer (in this case aluminum) and controlled by a magnetic field.
Miniature robots made of polyester or polystyrene can be coated in a thin metal layer (in this case aluminum) and controlled by a magnetic field.

The Transformers that light up movie screens are gigantic automatons that morph noisily from motorcycle to metal monster.

But the first real-life shape-shifters are tiny, gentle, wafer-thin robots that flit like butterflies.

A group from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory recently showed off this concept. Though much more work is needed, the demonstration hints at a future in which tiny, bio-compatible robots could enter the body, perform surgery guided from afar, and dissolve away as harmlessly as surgical stitches.

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Such a robot starts out as a flat sheet, but when heated, can fold itself into shape around a small magnet along pre-creased edges. This tiny origami-like creature doesn’t carry a battery pack, instead, it’s activated by magnetic pulses from afar.

With the magnetic field acting like an invisible puppeteer, the robot can move around on a surface, pick up small objects, burrow through a pile of rubble, and swim, the team showed in a video.

As if that wasn’t spectacle enough, a version of the robots are made of a material that can dissolve in water or acetone. After doing its work, it can vanish into nothing, leaving only the magnet behind.

About a year ago, the MIT team behind these mini-bots showed for the first time that microwaving the robots could trigger the folding mechanism, essentially baking them into shape. The new work takes that a step forward, showing that the frisky little things can be directed to perform specific tasks.

That advancement is significant because — particularly in the case of surgical tools — it shows that tiny machines can be controlled remotely without needing to carry along electronic controls or their own power supply.

“Nobody wants to swallow a battery and a motor,” said Shuhei Miyashita, the project’s lead researcher, who demoed the robots at a huge robotics conference last month. “We are trying to make the materials intelligent or autonomous.”

The MIT lab is one of a handful of research groups working on these kind of advanced materials. The high-level concept is that, instead of programming a computer, researchers can use design elements to control physical objects: Cardboard that curls when it’s immersed in water, or PVC wafers that can fold into a desired shape when they’re zapped in a microwave.

This alternative strategy allows for small, cheap, lightweight machines that are potentially much more nimble than the large metal robots. So while the origami robots can’t open a door for you like Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot, Atlas, they darn well won’t fall over, either.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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