Robots get smaller, smarter and faster every day. Now that we can 3-D print the little devices, they’re also easier to make. In fact, they’re so easy to make that there’s one robot that can actually assemble itself.
Here it is, assembling its way to world supremacy:
The materials used here are shape memory polymers. They remember certain shapes and, when the right conditions are met, fold into those forms. This robot can bend itself from a flat sheet into a little worm-like thing. Here’s an explanation of how shape memory works from IEEE Spectrum:
Self-folding happens thanks to shape memory polymers that contract when heated. By printing these polymers on one side of a hinged substrate and then heating them, the hinge can be made to bend. The amount of bend is controlled by etching flexible connectors that connect both sides of the hinge, and with enough hinges heated in the right order, it’s possible to create fairly complex folded shapes, including things like interlocking structural elements.
The tricky part of the process is the folding of the robot itself: installing the battery and motor is trivial enough for a human to do, which means that a relatively simple pick and place robot should have no problems doing the same thing. This means that these robots have the potential to scale massively: they can be printed out of cheap materials, they fold themselves together, and another robot can plonk some hardware on them and they’re good to go.
Now, we’ve seen self assembling robots before. Like this one:
And we’ve seen robots that have been 3-D printed before. Like this one:
But this is the first robot to be both 3-D printed and have the ability to self assemble. Next step: teach them to solder.
More from Smithsonian.com: