June 30, 2010
By Tom Chivers
At the moment the tiny robot – a sheet just half a millimetre thick, scarcely thicker than a piece of paper – only folds itself into a boat, like a child’s toy, or a “paper glider” plane shape. But it is anticipated that in future it will be used to create full-sized cars and aircraft that morph as they move, or robots that can “flow” like mercury into small openings, or multipurpose military uniforms that can adapt to different environments.
Researchers at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) launched the project in 2007 in conjunction with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is a small sheet of stiff tiles and “joints” of elastomer, “studded with thin foil actuators and flexible electronics. The demonstration material contains 25 total actuators, divided into five groupings. A shape is produced by triggering the proper actuator groups in sequence,” according to a statement by Robert Wood, the head of the Harvard research team.