The reconfigurable robots are simple origami-based structures that combine multiple shape-memory alloy actuators to be able to jump and crawl across uneven surfaces. The work lead by Professor Jamie Paik at the EPFL National Center of Competence in Robotics (NCCR) Laboratory was published in Nature under the title “Designing minimal and scalable insect-inspired multi-locomotion millirobots”. The paper describes untethered, battery-powered millirobot that can selectively switch gaits to traverse diverse terrain types, and groups of millirobots that can operate collectively to manipulate objects and overcome obstacles.
Individually and based on swarm-based terrain awareness, each palm-sized millirobot can chose to jump vertically for height, horizontally for distance, perform a somersault to clear an obstacle, walk on textured terrain and crawl on a flat surface. They are built through the integration of mechanical, material and electronic layers into a quasi-two-dimensional metamaterial sandwich which can fold and change shape to adopt various gaits.
Similarly to ants, the tiny robots only exhibit minimal physical intelligence on an individual level, but being connected, they can act collectively. Programmed with swarm-based algorithms, they can collectively detect and overcome obstacles, pass them and move objects much larger and heavier than themselves.
The Tribots (short for those three-legged T-shaped origami robots) can be assembled in only a few minutes by folding a stack of thin, multi-material sheets. They come equipped with infrared and proximity sensors for detection and communication purposes, but could carry more sensors if needed.