These tiny machines, just one centimeter in size, can fold into complex shapes and perform tasks. It has the potential to be used for applications in fields like medical equipment and infrastructure sensing. (Image Credit: Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering)

 

Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed origami-inspired microbots that are quicker, more agile and have more control than other machines. Measuring just one centimeter in size, the microbots can form one shape, perform a task, reconfigure into a second shape for another task. These machines have the potential to be used for applications in fields such as medical equipment and infrastructure sensing. The team presented their findings in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

 

“We’ve come up with a new way to design, fabricate and actuate microbots,” said Evgueni Filipov, a U-M assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We’ve been the first to bring advanced origami folding capabilities into one integrated microbot system.”

 

The majority of microbots have limited movements, making them less capable of performing useful tasks. Folding at large angles enables the microbot to extend its range of motion. This machine is capable of folding at 90 degrees and more. Bigger folds enable the microbots to form more complex shapes. The team’s technique allows the microbots to complete their range of motion up to 80 times per second.

 

Normally, microbots utilizing origami principles usually require an outside stimulus, such as heat or magnetic fields, to trigger its movements. To bypass this, the team added a layer of gold and a layer of polymer, which acts as an onboard actuator. These microbots are controlled by a tether. In the future, an electric current can be applied in the systems from an onboard battery and a microcontroller.

 

“When current passes through the gold layer, it creates heat, and we use heat to control the motions of the microbot,” Filipov said. “We drive the initial fold by heating the system; then we unfold by letting it cool down. To get something to fold and stay folded, we overheat the system. When we overheat, we can program the fold—change where it comes to rest.”

 

By using these capabilities, microbots can function elastically and plastically, which allows them to go back to their original shape.

 

 

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