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Like a robot jigsaw puzzle, modular bots snap together to carry out tasks

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From tables to spacecraft, these origami-inspired robots showcase the versatile power of modular bots.

The ancient Japanese paper-folding art of origami (“ori” meaning “folding,” and “kami” meaning “paper”) probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about groundbreaking robot research.

That’s possibly because you’re not a roboticist at Switzerland’s National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics or École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Researchers there have developed a modular robot project called Mori, which involves various small triangular bots that snap together to create a range of different shapes, depending on the number of pieces used. The robots each comprise an actuator, various sensors, and an onboard controller — contained in a plasticized casing.

“The idea behind modular and shape-changing robots is to create systems that can adapt to all sorts of environments and applications,” Christoph Belke, a member of EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab, told Digital Trends. “We want to be able to have a robot that, whatever you need it to do, can reconfigure into the appropriate shape and tool in order to accomplish the task. In this respect, our robot Mori has distinct advantages over other systems thanks to our fusion of origami and modular robots. It is easy to transport, can deploy into large, thin-walled structures, and reconfigure by folding a large number of degrees-of-freedom, making the potential applications of our robot endless.”

mori modular robot surface

Belke suggests that these applications could include home-based systems, such as a table that changes its shape according to whatever is placed on it, or more profound applications like molding to a person’s body to provide customized support in case of injury.

“Since our system is entirely scalable, we can also envision a system that can be sent to space in order to create reconfigurable capsules, or repair damage to an existing structure by re-creating the original shape and forming to it,” he said. “For us, this is just the beginning of modular origami robots. We continue to work on the technology in order to extend the possibilities and realize real-world implementations.”

We’ll never look at a folded paper crane the same way again!

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