MIT is calling this tiny device the Swiss army knife of the robotics world, though that doesn’t really seem to do it justice. Developed at the university’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the milli-motein is a caterpillar-sized robot that can be folded into assorted shapes, signaling a future in which devices shapeshift into almost anything imaginable.

The milli-motein is made of metal rings and strips. The key innovation: specially designed motors that can be instructed to move at certain angles and can hold their own position even with the power switched off. “It’s effectively a one-dimensional robot that can be made in a continuous strip, without conventionally moving parts, and then folded into arbitrary shapes,” Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, says. The design was inspired by proteins, which naturally assume various shapes. (Milli-motein is a mashup of “protein” and “millimeter.”)

The researchers are hoping to make the structure stronger, so that it can be on par with more expensive gearing systems. This tiny Tranformer could then lead to robotic systems that can reconfigure themselves to perform any function needed. It’s more futuristic that fixed-function robotics, and it could be cheaper to produce, as well, they say.

MIT News