University of Washington researchers unveil robotic marvels that harness the power of origami.
Researchers from the University of Washington have crafted robotic “microfliers” capable of altering their movement mid-air. Detailed in Science Robotics, these minuscule devices employ the Miura-ori origami fold, altering their flight path from chaotic tumbling to a direct downward fall.
Once released from drones, these microfliers tap into a series of control methods to determine when to switch their movements. Among the tools they rely on are onboard pressure sensors (to gauge altitude), timers, and Bluetooth signals.
Despite weighing a mere 400 milligrams—roughly half of a nail’s weight—these robots can cover the length of a football field when launched from an elevation of about 131 feet in gentle wind conditions. They come equipped with battery-free actuators, solar energy-harvesting circuits, and a controller. Moreover, they’re capable of measuring factors like temperature and humidity in real-time during flight.
Nature Meets Robotics
“Origami-inspired designs have unlocked new potentials for microfliers,” remarked Vikram Iyer, the co-senior author and an assistant professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at UW.
Drawing inspiration from the geometric patterns seen in leaves, the team merged the Miura-ori fold with power-harvesting technology and mini actuators. This synergy enables the microfliers to simulate various leaf flights. For instance, when unfolded, they move chaotically like elm leaves. However, when folded, they gracefully descend like a maple leaf. “This breakthrough lets us control microflier descent without batteries, which was previously unthinkable,” Iyer added.
Addressing Design Challenges
These robotic wonders have been crafted to:
- Maintain rigidity, ensuring they don’t unintentionally switch to their folded state before receiving the signal.
- Swiftly shift between states. The inbuilt actuators require just around 25 milliseconds to begin the folding process.
- Morph their form without relying on external power, thanks to their solar-powered circuit.
For now, microfliers can only switch from a tumbling mode to a straight fall. However, this capability enables simultaneous control over multiple devices, ensuring they scatter in varied directions during descent.
The team’s future vision is even more ambitious: designing microfliers that can transition in both directions, ensuring pinpoint landings even amidst gusty winds.
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