Picture this: You have a medical condition that requires you to undergo surgery. Normally, the time you’d need to recuperate from the invasive procedure would pose an inconvenience in your already busy life. But, thanks to an incredible new invention, instead of having to schedule traditional surgery, you are handed a small packet with one, slightly larger-than-average pill. “Take this before bed,” states your doctor, “and take it easy in the morning, just in case.”
Once you swallow the pill, your natural body temperature will melt the casing and activate the tiny robot within, which will proceed to configure itself into whatever form is required for the successful completion of the procedure. Then, once the mission is over, it will simply self-dissolve or seamlessly exit your system. While this treatment option is not real, it was one of the goals of the research team headed by Daniela Rus, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, in 2016.
Joining forces with the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the team of researchers used exterior magnetic signals to steer a small origami robot inside a simulated esophagus and stomach to patch up a wound and remove a swallowed item. Because the robot had to be small enough to fit into a capsule that could be swallowed, and strong enough to unfold in full, “researchers arrived at a rectangular robot with accordion folds perpendicular to its long axis and pinched corners.”
"It's really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care," stated Rus. A year later, her team expanded on the idea and designed a robot with an even wider range of applications. “Dubbed ‘Primer,’ the [cuboid] robot uses sheets of smart material which fold into specific shapes when controlled by magnets — to allow the robot to walk, roll, sail, and glide.” These sheets, or exoskeletons, shape-shift with the application of heat.
The idea is that once the cuboid is inside the stomach, it will rely on different exoskeletons to perform tasks, such as administering medicine, taking tissue samples, or collecting and reporting data to the doctor, etc. “Some aspects of surgery could be done without incisions, pain, or infection,” shared Rus in an update. Although the team moved away from using the origami robot from 2016, the exoskeletons for the 2017 model fold like paper in the traditional art form.
Moving forward, researchers hope to make the robots even smaller, more intelligent, and give them the ability to work with biomaterials. Additionally, “future modifications could give the robots an even broader range of capabilities, such as driving through water, burrowing in sand, or changing color for camouflage purposes.” The adaptability of such technology could make a huge impact on industries not related to healthcare. With this in mind, the team continues to address the limitations of what their robots can do.
"The capabilities of robots are defined by what their bodies can do and how their 'brains' can control these bodies to execute tasks. The body, the brain, and the tasks that can be executed have a tight coupling," wrote the team in Robotic Metamorphosis by Origami Exoskeletons (2017). "We believe that this work will open the door to the development of a new class of robots that are compact and can be specialized and customized to execute a wide range of tasks."
This year, a new type of origami robot was unveiled — one that can pick up delicate objects without damaging them, which had been a problem in the past. Rus’ team, along with researchers from Harvard, created a new robot gripper. “It's cone shaped and collapses around an object in a similar way to how a Venus flytrap works. The gripper is hollow and vacuum-powered, with inspiration coming from Uri Shumakov's origami magic ball.”
"By combining this foldable skeleton with the soft exterior, we get the best of both worlds,” Rus told The Verge. "I'm excited about using such a robot hand to start grasping groceries." Reportedly, the flexible robot that resembles a small, orange flower can pick up objects 100 times heavier than itself. “The gripper is constructed from three parts: an origami skeleton, an airtight skin, and a connector to the robot allowing for control of the vacuum.”
At this time, the robot struggles with flat objects, unless the object is presented at an angle and has a grabbable side. It does, however, excel at lifting most cylindrical things. This technology, as well as the technology behind the origami robot and the cuboid that followed it, is going to revolutionize the future of healthcare as well as a large number of other industries.
It will do so, thanks to an art form that’s been enjoyed for hundreds of years. In fact, origami has been inspiring STEM for some time, and the efforts of Daniela Rus, are just one of many interesting examples.
Note* Image sourced from the public domain.