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September 8, 2010

Programmable origami sheets fold themselves

Wrote John Matson in the September 2010 Scientific American, "Researchers have invented a real-life Transformer, a device that can fold itsef into two shapes on command.... The concept could one day produce chameleon-like objects that shift between any number of practical shapes at will."

"'Instead of programming bits and bytes, you program mechanical properties of the object,' said Daniela Rus, a roboticist at MIT."

"The system... consists of a thin sheet of resin-fiberglass composite... segmented into 32 triangular panels separated by flexible silicone joints [below]."


"Some of the joints have heat-sensitive actuators that bend 180° when warmed by an electric current, folding the sheet over at that joint. Depending on the program used, the sheet will conduct a series of folds to yield a boat or airplane shape in about 15 seconds."

Wrote Charles Q. Choi in a June 28, 2010 msnbc.com story, "The achievement could help pave the way for 'programmable matter' that could one day serve much like a Swiss Army knife, bending and creasing into any number of tools.

"Instead of carrying a toolbox with all these specific items in them like screwdrivers and wrenches, you could carry around a small pallet of these sheets that you would use to create something for a particular function," said Harvard roboticist Robert Wood.

The researchers foresee a number of potential applications:

  • Measuring cups that fold to hold anywhere from a quarter teaspoon to multiple cups.
  • Shelves that fold into as many divisions as required.
  • A puckering sheet that can display information for the blind or people in the dark.
  • A Swiss army knife of sorts able to form a tripod, wrench, antenna, or splint.

Instead of employing shape memory alloy strips, the actuators could be made of a number of other materials as well, such as artificial muscles, the researchers say. "We could also think of sheets that not only change shape but also structural or electromagnetic properties as well," Wood said.

The researchers detailed their findings online June 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper's abstract follows.



Programmable matter by folding

Programmable matter is a material whose properties can be programmed to achieve specific shapes or stiffnesses upon command. This concept requires constituent elements to interact and rearrange intelligently in order to meet the goal. This paper considers achieving programmable sheets that can form themselves in different shapes autonomously by folding. Past approaches to creating transforming machines have been limited by the small feature sizes, the large number of components, and the associated complexity of communication among the units. We seek to mitigate these difficulties through the unique concept of self-folding origami with universal crease patterns. This approach exploits a single sheet composed of interconnected triangular sections. The sheet is able to fold into a set of predetermined shapes using embedded actuation. To implement this self-folding origami concept, we have developed a scalable end-to-end planning and fabrication process. Given a set of desired objects, the system computes an optimized design for a single sheet and multiple controllers to achieve each of the desired objects. The material, called programmable matter by folding, is an example of a system capable of achieving multiple shapes for multiple functions.

September 8, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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And there's nothing like seeing the thermometer you brought from home creep toward 80F, no matter what the *$&*! thermostat says...Ooh, I feel so empowered.

Posted by: Becs | Sep 8, 2010 8:13:19 PM

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