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Robotics meet origami in self-folding sheets

Thanks to scientists at Harvard and MIT, programmable electronic sheets can now fold themselves into shapes that any origami aficionado could appreciate.

Even origami--that centuries-old art of folding paper into delicate shapes--isn't safe from the cold, metal hand of robotics. Thanks to scientists at Harvard and MIT, programmable electronic sheets can now fold themselves into a cute little boat or plane that virtually any origami aficionado could appreciate.

self-folding sheets
The self-folding sheets are composed of interconnected triangular sections with universal crease patterns and studded with thin foil actuators (click to enlarge). Harvard University

Why would the brilliant minds at two of the nation's top universities concern themselves with the likes of origami? The technology behind the self-folding sheets, they say, could lead to all sorts of shape-shifting devices, including "smart" cups that adjust themselves based on the amount of liquid needed, or Swiss Army knife-type devices that could transform themselves into tools like wrenches and tripods.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) helped fund the research, which suggests the multitasking material could hold promise for military applications where space--and free hands--are limited.

The researchers, who detail their work this week in an online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, constructed the thin and flexible sheets from a composite of rigid tiles and elastomer joints.

Their material, which they call "programmable matter by folding," is studded with thin foil actuators. The sheets are made up of interconnected triangular sections with universal crease patterns; triggering the right actuator groups in sequence leads the sheets to fold themselves into a given shape.

"The process begins when we first create an algorithm for folding," explained Robert Wood, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a lead author of the study. "Similar to a set of instructions in an origami book, we determine, based upon the desired end shapes, where to crease the sheet."

Wood collaborated with Daniela Rus, a professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department at MIT and co-director of the CSAIL Center for Robotics, which has been called an epicenter of the robotics revolution.

The team devised a series of "stickers" that contain the circuitry that gets the actuators to fold on demand with without a user having to access a computer. When the sheet gets the right jolt of current, it begins to fold, staying in place thanks to magnetic closures.

Not picturing it? Watch the video below to see origami that's absolutely nothing like the kind you did in first grade.