Bend and snap: tiny origami robots fold to control flight

Researchers have crafted miniature origami robots that can fold and shape-shift in mid-air to control their descent.

The tiny wind-dispersed robots are called ‘microfliers’. They are light as pumpkin seed and a few centimetres square in size (similar to a piece of ‘mini mini’ origami paper).

Publishing in Science Robotics, researchers from the University of Washington, US designed the robots with origami folds which enable them to snap between two different shapes, each with a different falling behaviour.

As Assistant Professor Vikram Iyer tells Cosmos: “When [they’re] flatter the little origami structures have this tumbling descent where they spread outwards with the wind. With the other shape they basically fall straight down.”  

Microflier in its folded state / Credit: Mark Stone / University of Washington

“If we can use these small shape changes to influence how it falls, then we’re hoping to get pretty fine-grained control over where these land”.

The microfliers are made to carry sensors which measure temperature, humidity and other environmental conditions. They can be released by a drone, automatically dispersing across an area to gather measurements.

A timelapse photo of the “microflier” falling in its unfolded state, which makes it tumble chaotically in the wind / Credit: Mark Stone / University of Washington

A small array of solar cells powers the folding action – triggered by an actuator made from a wire coil and a magnet – along with the robot’s tiny onboard computing chip, radio receiver and transmitter, timer and sensors.

The robot’s shape change can either be programmed at a given time, pressure, or height or prompted via remote-control.

The robot is battery free, which Iyer says makes it lighter, and avoids the environmental issues associated with batteries – the carbon impact of making batteries and toxic chemicals in disposal.

Separately, his group is also working on a project making circuits on biodegradable materials.

The ultimate aim is to bring all these elements together: the battery free design, biodegradable circuits and origami shape-shifting for flight control.

“The hope is going forward we can integrate all these things […] to eventually have little devices where you can disperse them out in the wind. They can fall and you can achieve whatever your sensing objective is. And then eventually, over time, they’ll just naturally degrade,” Iyer says.

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