The wizards, er, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a self-folding robot about the size of a US penny. The robot can fold itself like an origami swan, and then move about, executing tasks under the influence of a magnetic field.
At first a printable plastic sheet, it becomes a robot when heated and a small magnet is placed on its back. Thus activated, the robot moves via an interaction between the magnet and external, programmable actuation.
"Origami-inspired robot designs have the potential to be faster, cheaper, and easier to fabricate than robots using traditional manufacturing processes," says Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Because they are able to move in intricate patterns and through small spaces, Rus sees inspection tasks as an immediate application.
The tiny swan can carry loads twice its weight; it can swim, climb, move around obstacles, and otherwise perform amazing micro-robot maneuvers. When its operations are complete, the liquid-soluble robot dissolves in water or acetone (depending on the robot's construction material).
The ultimate goal is to reduce the technology to a size that lets the robot perform medical tasks inside the human body. Once inserted and directed to the correct location, Rus imagines the robots forming into medical instruments to help the healing process.
And when their work is finished, they just disappear.