The art of origami as we know it today -- folding flat sheets of paper into intricate sculptures -- was first developed in Japan around 400 years ago. Similar paper folding techniques in China and Europe go back even further, but the Japanese turned what was usually a practical tradition into a vibrant art form. In the modern age, origami principles have inspired a surprisingly wide range of applications in science, mathematics and technology.
Entrepreneur Alastair Pryor has developed a line of portable compact shelters that fold out like origami tents, for use in emergencies and disasters. Weighing in at a slender 35 pounds each, the structures fold flat for easy transportation then open into 6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 waterproof cubes.
Johns Hopkins University
Let's get small! In 2011, biomolecular engineers at Johns Hopkins began investigating ways to employ origami techniques for self-assembling nanotech machines. The team designed mathematically precise "nets" of tiny flat plates that, when heated to a specific temperature, fold themselves into complex geometric structures -- like 12-sided dodecahedrons the size of a dust speck.
FoldScope via Youtube
Earlier this year, scientists at Stanford University unveiled the remarkableFoldscope
-- an origami microscope that can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper in under 10 minutes. Pop in a tiny lens, light and battery, and the Foldscope can provide 2,000X magnification for less than $1 in materials.
Designed for use in small-scale indoor farming, the Microgarden is a kind of miniature origami greenhouse for "microgreens" -- tiny edible plants that require little water or light. The greens get their moisture from a thin layer of seaweed-based gel inside the transparent plastic paper, which can be folded into a variety of shapes.
Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Seoul National University's BioRobotics Laboratory via Youtube
At this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), two separate research teams debuted origami-inspired wheel systems for robots. Because the folded wheel spokes can change their shape on the fly, the diameter of the wheel itself can be altered to increase speed or torque when needed.
Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory
Origami techniques are also useful, turns out, for mass producing coin-sized robotic insects. In 2012, engineers at Harvard developed a system for assembling microrobots inspired by origami and pop-up books. The technique uses 18 layers of material in an intricate, laser-cut design. Flexible hinges allow the microrobot to self-assemble in one movement, like a pop-up book.
University of Maryland
Researchers at the University of Maryland recently demonstrated a new method for hydrogen fuel cell storage using tiny origami-like containers. The process, dubbed HAGO (hydrogenation-assisted graphene origami), incorporates an electric field that causes the origami boxes to fold and unfold on their own. Researches hope the technique will improve fuel cell capacity in hydrogen-powered vehicles.
MIT Media Lab /Tangible Media Group
By way of a composite material technology dubbed PneUI, MIT's Tangible Media Group has developed a wearable smart phone template that folds itself into a bracelet. Pneumatically actuated hinges built into the material allow the device to fold and unfold, origami-style, with a top structural layer made from silicone, fabric, wood or even -- yes -- paper.
Origami techniques have even been applied to that most intractable of modern dilemmas -- getting the last of the toothpaste out of the tube. Arizona State University design student Nicole Pannuzzo has designed an origami-inspired toothpaste tube that collapses like an accordion, leaving a flat piece of paper when extrusion is complete.
Genuinely innovative and surprisingly pretty, NASA's prototype starshade project looks like a giant origami sunflower in space. The idea is to deploy the starshade along with space-based telescopes when studying potentially habitable exoplanets, which are necessarily close to their host sun. The starshade's "petals" -- 34 meters in diameter when unfolded-- are specifically designed to reduce glare and impede the bending of light around the edges. This allows the telescope, positioned in the shadow of the starshade, to get better images of the target plant.
More unsettling news from the impending robot revolution: A team of engineers has built a robot that for the first time assembles itself and crawls away — all without any human intervention.
Accomplishing this first step in a robot’s autonomous self-assembly and mobility is a huge achievement in and of itself. The applications for cheaply built, sophisticated machines that interact with their environment are still in the realm of the imagination, though.
“Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there — they could take images, collect data and more,” said Sam Felton, a PhD candidate at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Felton is the lead author of a paper published today Science.
Felton worked with engineers and computer scientists from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They were inspired by instances of self-assembly in nature, such as amino acids that fold themselves into complex proteins.
The robot is made from paper and Shrinky Dinks, that enduring children’s toy that becomes rigid when heated. It starts flat, in a design inspired from origami, the Japanese art form that folds complex shapes from a paper. Hinges were cut into the shape and designed to fold at certain angles. Two tiny motors, two batteries and a microcontroller were added to give the robot its power.
The team went through more than 40 prototypes before successfully building an entire electromechanical system, embedded in one flat sheet.
When heated, the material begins to shrink and fold at the pre-cut hinges. After about four minutes, the polystyrene stiffens and the microcontroller directs the robot to crawl away, which it does at about one-tenth of one mile per hour.
“The exciting thing here is that you create this device that has computation embedded in the flat, printed version,” Daniela Rus said in a press statement. “And when these devices lift up from the ground into the third dimension, they do it in a thoughtful way.” Rus is professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and one of the Science paper’s co-authors.
One long term goal is to provide public facilities where anyone could walk in and order a custom robot. “You would be able to come in, describe what you need in fairly basic terms, and come back an hour later to get your robotic helper,” Wood said in a press release.
“The days of big, rigid, robots that sit in place and carry out the same repetitive task day in and out are fading fast,” he said.
Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute