These Small Robots are Inspired by Origami

Roboticist Cynthia Sung has been doing origami since she was young. She says she was always excited by the possibility of taking something two-dimensional and folding it into a three-dimensional object that can move. Through origami, an ordinary, flat sheet of paper can become a talking frog or a crane that can flap its wings.

But Sung envisioned origami even more complex and functional than 3D shapes and moving animals. Through origami-inspired engineering, she hopes to not only create rapidly fabricable robots capable of completing tasks, but also build intuitive design software that enables others who may not be trained in engineering to create their own personalized origami robots.

Origami robots are fabricated as 2D sheets and then folded into their 3D form using a fabrication technique called 3D print and fold, which is based on the idea that one can print 2D fold patterns using a 3D printer. This provides the versatility of 3D printing with the rapid fabrication properties of 2D design.

In collaboration with researchers from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Columbia University, Sung is developing a tool for designing custom ground robots, which can walk or use wheels to move on the ground. The tool, called Interactive Robogami, is based on a database of robot parts which users can combine together like a “virtual Lego set.”

After users click and drag parts from the database to create their robots, the software will suggest possible gaits for the robot so that users don’t have to worry about the combination of the geometry of the robot and its motion.

“This makes the design process much more intuitive but it also allows users some creative freedom,” Sung says.

In the system, users can click or drag parts, designed by experts, from a database. The system will then suggest possible gaits for the robot so that users don’t have to worry about the combination of the geometry of the robot and its motion. Users can also simulate the robot to make sure that it’s going to work in the way that they want it to before they fabricate it.

Once the users are happy with the design, the system will output a full fabrication plan. This will include sending a file that tells the 3D printer what to print, compiling a list of electronic parts that users will need to connect together, and creating software they can load onto a microcontroller that directs the robot.

Within a few hours, users will be able to print the robot, assemble it, and have it walking around on their desk.

Roboticist Cynthia Sung

“Within a few hours,” Sung says, “users will be able to print the robot, assemble it, and have it walking around on their desk.”

Because they can be designed and built so quickly, origami robots are useful in situations which require rapidly deployable robots, such as search and rescue operations.

The robots are also ideal for situations that require compact storage and transport: The robot can be folded into a compact shape or unfolded it into its flat form and transported with minimal packaging. This makes origami robots ideal for space applications where researchers might want to deploy a robot but don’t want it to be too heavy or take up too much room when they launch it.

Origami robots will also be useful for everyday tasks. For instance, Sung says, if a car mechanic drops a tool somewhere that is difficult to reach and doesn’t have the resources to get into a small space, this design software will enable the mechanic to quickly fabricate the tool needed to retrieve the object.

The next steps in the research are to start looking at the dynamics and control of the robot.

“What we want to do in the future is make sure that these robots that we can design are actually useful to people,” Sung says. “That requires looking at the dynamics of the robot, doing real dynamic simulations in environments that approximate the real world and looking at things like sensing and feedback control.”

She says that the main goal behind this research is to allow people who are not expert robotics engineers to design their own personalized robots with a process as intuitive as folding a paper crane.

“We're envisioning a future where robotics is going to be deeply integrated into society,” Sung says, “and this sort of research allows people to customize those robots to their own needs. So instead of relying on mass produced robots that serve only particular purposes, these sorts of systems allow people to make sure that the tools that they’re using are particular to their specific applications. In the future, when people need access to these robots, they’ll be able to create them on their own without having to rely on engineers working for years to create them for them.”

Cynthia Sung is an assistant professor in the department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science

Homepage photo: Origami robots are fabricated as 2D sheets and then folded into their 3D form using a fabrication technique called 3D print and fold, which is based on the idea that one can print 2D fold patterns using a 3D printer.

Photo at top: Sung is developing design software to enable people without an engineering background to create custom origami robots that can move on the ground. The tool, called Interactive Robogami, is based on a database of robot parts which users can combine together like a “virtual Lego set.”

  • Text by Ali Sundermeier
  • Video by Rebecca Abboud