Foldable robots with intricate transistors can squeeze into extreme situations

Venus flytrap inspired origami robot on black backgroun

The robot's material itself operates as a stand-in for semiconductors. UCLA Samueli

A team of UCLA researchers has designed a new way to integrate traditionally inflexible semiconductor and sensory components into their devices’ structural materials. Enter a new dimension to origami-based robotics.

While origami has long inspired robotic design, it usually comes with some caveats—notably the placement and size of bits like computer chips. As “foldable” as a device may be, these rigid parts generally meant semiconductors needed installation after a robot’s shape was finalized. However, the multidisciplinary team managed to integrate flexible, conductive materials into extremely thin sheets of polyester film in order to create entirely new networks of transistors. According to UCLA’s description, the sheets could then be programmed with computer functions to emulate semiconductors’ usual roles within a robot. They recently detailed these findings in a paper published in Nature Communications.

[Related: A tiny, foldable solar panel is going to outer space.]

To test out their advancements, researchers built three versions of their Origami MechanoBots, or OrigaMechs: a bug bot that reverses course whenever its antennae detects an impediment, a two-wheeled robot capable of traveling along prearranged geometric pathways, and even a Venus flytrap-inspired mechanism that closes its jaws when detecting pressure from its “prey.”

According to the team’s paper, the foldable semiconductor-like materials’ utility could go above and beyond their lightweight flexibility. In the future, similar robots could also operate within extreme environments unsuitable for traditional semiconductors, including situations involving strong magnetic or radiative fields, high electrostatic discharges, as well as particularly intense radio frequencies.

Credit: UCLA Samueli

“These types of dangerous or unpredictable scenarios, such as during a natural or manmade disaster, could be where origami robots proved to be especially useful,” said Ankur Mehta, the study’s principal investigator and director of UCLA’s Laboratory for Embedded Machines and Ubiquitous Robots.

[Related: This fabric doubles as 1,200 solar panels.]

Because of their thin design, the new robotic material could also prove useful in future missions to space, where cargo capacity and size restraints are incredibly pivotal factors to consider. There’s even talk of using them within future toys and educational games. According to Mehta, the sky is truly the limit for the polyester OrigaMechs:

“While it’s a very long way away, there could be environments on other planets where explorer robots that are impervious to those scenarios would be very desirable,” he said.