The Tiny Transformer Robot Inspired by Origami

Optimus Primer can roll, float and glide

As amazing as they are, the robots of today are built with specific purposes in mind. Even despite the development of soft robots, most are unwieldy and inflexible due to their design. “It’s not very efficient to have a different [robot] for each task,” says Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). Alongside Shuhei Miyashita, director of the Microrobotics Group at the University of York, Rus devised a project to create shapeshifting bots.

In a paper published last month, Rus, Miyashita and their team revealed Primer, a tiny cube shaped robot controlled by magnets. Inspired by origami, Primer is able to add to and change its capabilities by adding different exoskeletons. These plastic ‘outfits’ begin as a sheet which folds around the robot when heated. As well as its standard walking function, Primer can roll, float and glide – when in boat mode, it can carry almost twice its own weight. The bot ‘undresses’ by submerging itself in water, combatting the effects of the heat. However, although developing tiny shape changing robots has been no small feat, scaling up could be even more of a challenge.

While comparing Primer to the fictional, world saving Transformer robots seems a little silly, this form shifting device is a precursor to a future of multipurpose, mobile machines. As more research and development goes into robotics and materials science, the strength and ability of transformer bots will undoubtedly grow. Combined with the expanding open source movement, creating new abilities and ‘outfits’ could become a communal effort. In future, single robots could be equipped with similar shape altering technology to enable them to carry out a far wider range of tasks. When applied to healthcare, construction or humanitarian response, this could even be lifesaving.