Video: Pentagon’s Shape-Shifting Bot Folds Into Boat, Plane

Even for the Pentagon’s science-fiction division, it seemed like a stretch. But in 2007, Darpa really did launch an effort to build programmable matter that could reconfigure itself on command. Then, two years later, Harvard and MIT researchers really did make progress building “self-folding origami” that just might be able to twist themselves into different shapes. Yesterday, Darpa-backed electrical engineers at the two schools released the stunning results: a shape-shifting sheet of rigid tiles and elastomer joints that can fold itself into a little plane or a boat on demand.

It’s “a first step towards making everyday objects whose mechanical properties can be programmed,” Harvard’s Robert Wood says in a statement.

The sheet, less than a half-millimeter thick, “is 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,” the statement explains.

The shape-shifter takes a four-step approach to figures out how to rearrange itself. Step one: Take a 3-D model of a completed origami shape, and then reverse-engineer it to see what kind of “folding paths” are needed to get there. Step two: Take that information to “produc[e] a discrete folding plan” for each tile group, Wood and his fellow researchers note in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The third algorithm receives each of the individual plans [and] assembles them onto one sheet…. Finally, the fourth algorithm chooses the optimum arrangement [to] minimize either the number of actuators or number of actuator groups.”

From there, the thin little machine gets to transforming itself.

In Darpa’s dreams, this work will eventually lead to everything from morphing aircraft to self-styling uniforms to a “universal spare part.”

But in the meantime, a piece of robotic origami that can fold itself into a boat or a plane is wild enough. (6.29.2010, Noah Shachtman)

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