US engineers build self-folding origami robot

August 15, 2014

A group of engineers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in creating a self-assembling robot.

The robot’s assembly process relies upon origami, a traditional Japanese paper-folding craft.

Made from a composite sheet of paper, polystyrene and a circuit board, the machine can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a four-legged beetle-like form, and crawl away autonomously. The design also includes two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller. Hinges were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens – making the robot stiff – and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Sam Felton, doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the paper described in Science. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go.”

The robot is controlled by a timer which means that 10 seconds after the battery is inserted it will begin assembly.

Felton came upon the final design after testing around 40 prototypes. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands. Assembly took around 2 hours.

As the pre-stretched polystyrene hardens after assembly, the robot cannot yet unfold itself and return to a flat sheet form.

‘There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,’ said Felton. He plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers, including those that are stronger and require less heat to activate.

The potential applications of this type of machine are wide-ranging, stretching beyond the cheap manufacturing of robots.

‘Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there – they could take images, collect data, and more,’  said Felton.

Source: The Engineer; Bloomberg Businessweek 


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Yours for only ¥100 million: all aboard the Kuratas bot

September 28, 2012

Two Japanese robot fanatics have followed their dreams and created the ultimate Peter Pan toy for the boys who never grew up. Inspired by their love of sci-fi anime, artist Kogoro Kurata and software programming whiz Wataru Yoshizaki have in the space of just two years created a 4 ton, 4-metre tall, wearable robot so forward-looking it could have been pulled straight from an anime magazine. The Kuratas bot, as it is known, is a steel giant which can, despite its weight, attain speeds of up to 10 kilometres per hour as its diesel engine and 30 hydraulic joints carry it along on the four wheels on each of its four ‘limbs’. The driver must climb inside the cockpit to operate the robot, where he will discover some more fun features, such as the machine gun-like arm which can fire off an amazing 6,000 BB-like projectiles per minute. All the more amazing is that the arm can be controlled by nothing but the pilot’s facial expressions, with the aptly-named ‘Smile Shot’.

This is not Kogoro Kurata’s first experimentation with building robots. The Kuratas bot is the fruit of his previous labours, which include his huge lifesize – but immobile – replica of an anime cartoon robot, and his hydraulic-powered invention which can shoot footballs as fast as 200kph. But although Kurata certainly had the drive and determination to create the huge, animated robots he envisioned, he lacked the technical knowhow to create the computer programming systems. Cue Wataru Yoshizaki, the software wizard who shared Kurata’s dream for building giant, fully-functioning robots. Yoshizaki’s self-developed V-Shido system, which allows robots to be controlled remotely by voice recognition or motion detectors, was perfect, and so the Kuratas bot was born. Kurata and Yoshizaki even covered the costs themselves, so intent were they on creating the bot according to their own design, free from any commercial input.

Fancy a Kuratas of your own? It won’t come cheap. Prices begin at around ¥100 million, or a mere £800,000. For a little (read: a lot) extra, you can get additional features to customise your ‘bot, such as a BB shooter (¥5.5 million), or a carbon shield (only ¥5.8 million). To make Kuratas truly your own, why not have it painted in your choice of colours, or get a special-edition leather pilot’s seat?

Whilst we might not all have the spare cash (or the floorspace) to get one of these hydraulic creatures, what is sure is that Kurata and  Yoshizaki’s creation will inspire and challenge others to follow their lead. Here’s to innovation, creation, and robots with smile-controlled BB guns!

Sources include: Japan Times


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Roboethics – dealing with the ‘cheat’ robot

September 18, 2012

In a recent article in the Japan Times, Rob Gilhooly described a visit he had made to the University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Oku Laboratory in Japan. There, Gilhooly was introduced to a new sort of robot. Not a robot like Honda’s Asimo (アシモ), a humanoid creation serving drinks. This was a robot with a very different (though equally disconcerting) skill, that is, its 100% success rate at the game of Janken(じゃんけん), or, as Westerners call it, rock-paper-scissors.

The robot, which, unlike Asimo operates without a head, torso or limbs, is, quite simply, pure mechanical hand. It owes its children’s game success to its super high-speed reactions. Technology known as ‘High Speed Vision’ in the industry allows the robot to enjoy reaction times 70 times faster than those of humans. Such technology has also been used in the development of a 3-D scanner able to process a 300-page book in one minute and a microscope that can track fast-moving organisms. When Gilhooly meets the head of the team in charge of developing the robotic hand at the university, Masatoshi Ishikawa, Ishikawa also reveals that they are trying to find something fast enough to actually challenge their invention. They’re thinking about presenting the robot with bullets. Gilhooly is amazed.

So far, so impressive. But what can creations such as the robotic hand, and our attitudes towards them, tell us about our own human nature? Do we feel, like Gilhooly in his frustration at his repeated losses against the robot, that it is cheating? And do we feel differently towards humanoid robots (who look and act like us but cannot achieve non-human feats) and robots who are mechanical in appearance but perform super-human actions, beating us at our own games?

Such questions have been taken up in the study of roboethics, a relatively new field of interest in science, psychology and philosophy. The subject considers the behaviour of humans in their design, construction, use and treatment of robot, and brings up complex questions relating to topics such as consciousness, freedom and emotion. In 2004, the International Robot Fair in Fukuoka, Japan, published a World Robot Declaration, outlining the contributions robots will make to humankind. That same year saw the First International Symposium on Roboethics take place in Sanremo, Italy.

As robots become increasingly complicated and able, the study of roboethics can only become more important. While talented scientists devote themselves to developing robots, we should also be considering how robots develop us, as human beings, and what we can learn from them about ourselves. Lesson 1: we might not be as good at Janken as we think…

Sources include: The Japan Times


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