Transforming robots are not be the exclusive property of cartoons and sci-fi blockbusters anymore. Engineers from MIT have created a tiny device that is capable of folding itself into almost any desirable shape. Developed by Neil Gershenfeld, Ara Knaian and Kenneth Cheung, the “milli-motein” is the world’s smallest chain robot. Operating under the theory that any three-dimensional shape can be made by folding a long enough string of identical subunits, the small motorized contraption can fashion itself into almost any configuration.
Appearing like a metal caterpillar, the milli-motein is the equivalent of a robotic Swiss army knife. Following a paper published last year, the robot uses the idea that any three-dimensional shape can be made by folding a long enough chain through a series of exact steps. The folding of the chain does not need to be sequential, and ideally it would take place all at once. The team has yet to find an ideal set of steps to contort the robot, but they have proven that they could make a compact, universal device able to assemble itself. Head researcher Neil Gershenfeld describes the milli-motein as part of an overall approach of “turning data into things”.
To create the milli-motein, the team had to invent a novel new motor that was able to be strong and hold its position even when the power was switched off. Similar in principle to the giant electromagnets found in scrapyards to move cars, the “electro-permanent motor” uses a series of permanent magnets paired with electromagnets arranged in a circle. These magnets drive a steel ring placed around them and only use power when changing the position of the robot. The motors in the robot directly drive each axis without the need for gearing.
With the new technology, scientists are one step closer fashioning programmable matter where computers and mechanical devices merge. A mechanical protein, the milli-motein is set to mimic the brilliance of biology and spark a new era in robotics.