Space & Innovation

Morphing Metal Could Create Shapeshifting Robots

A hybrid material of silicone foam and metal turns elastic when slightly heated up. Continue reading →

The morphing metal robots of the "Terminator" franchise represent one of the most iconic images in science fiction movies. But surely we're many decades away from such technology, right? Maybe not.

Scientists at Cornell University have developed a metal-foam compound that can change shape then reform itself into a rigid structure. The material has many potential applications, but is particularly promising as the next step in the busy research field of soft robots.

Shapeshifting Tech: The Morph The Merrier

The upshot with the Cornell material is it could be used to create soft robots that can also turn stiff and rigid when the need arises. The key development is a hybrid material combining both hard metal and soft porous rubber foam.

The process begins with the use of a silicone foam, which is dipped into a soft metal alloy called Field's metal. The foam-metal hybrid is then placed into a vacuum so that air in the foam's pores is sucked out. The metal alloy flows into those pores, and the material is cooled into a hard solid.

Field's metal has one important characteristic - a low melting point of only 144 degrees Fahrenheit. In testing, the hybrid metal showed an ability to deform when heated above 144 degrees, then regain rigidity when cooled. In other words, the material becomes elastic when heated up, but regains its structural strength when cooled back down.

Six Micro-Robots Pull 4,000-Lb Car

"Sometimes you want a robot, or any machine, to be stiff," says Cornell engineering professor Rob Shepherd in press materials accompanying the announcement. "But when you make them stiff, they can't morph their shape very well. And to give a soft robot both capabilities, to be able to morph their structure but also to be stiff and bear load, that's what this material does."

The foam-metal material also has the ability to heal itself if it takes damage, researchers say. Cornell's research was published online this week in Advanced Materials and will be featured in an upcoming issue of the journal's print edition.

There are a lot of ways to essentially carve out cross-sections of emerging technologies. You can look at the broad topic areas -- robotics, biotech, computing. You can sort by chronology, geography, industry or application. Or you can just take a notion -- stuff that morphs into other stuff -- and see what pops up. Here we take a look at some images of conceptual and emerging technology based around the idea of changing shape. Across a wide variety of research areas, these are systems and machines -- both very big and very small -- that explore the idea of shapeshifting technology.

Over at the conceptual design website

Tuvie

, designers are looking at far-future ideas for self-driving cars in which the vehicle interior morphs to suit passenger needs. Since there is no need for actual driving, passengers can recline with the

Honda CARpet

concept, in which the interior flows and shape itself on command.

A team of London architects is working on the

D*Dynamic

project, a "folding house" which can reconfigure itself depending on seasonal conditions. Using a systems of sensors, hydraulics and rails, the house rotates and changes shape to optimize air and light.

In 2014, NASA demonstrated its

Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge

(ACTE) project, designed to develop a wing surface that can morph during flight. You know those metal flaps on the rear edge of commercial airliner wings? The idea is to evolve the concept with super-strong but flexible materials that would allow the wing to change shape without seams or hinges.

Scientists at the University of Michigan are currently researching the idea of developing fleets of

medical micro-robots

that could morph into different shapes within the human body. The tiny networked robots would travel through the body's circulatory system and could be electronically networked to assume different shapes for certain tasks -- clearing an arterial blockage, say, or stimulating a particular muscle.

Meanwhile, researchers at Cornell University are getting even smaller with a microscopic material they compare to the Terminator T-1000. Made of synthetic DNA, the

organic hydrogel

can be formed into a solid shape, then flow like a liquid, then return to its original shape. The gel could be used to administer medicines more precisely -- delivering drugs to the site of an injury, say, and reforming to exactly fit the space inside of a wound.

Back over at Tuvie, designers looking way down the line have envisioned a new kind of touchscreen device. The conceptual

Messizon Smartphone

would use a layer of nanoparticles to physically alter the screen beneath your fingers -- popping up buttons, images, 3-D maps or even Braille instructions. The concept

Nokia Morph

phone, pictured above, proposes nanotech components that are flexible, stretchable and transparent.

Shapeshifting furniture is a concept that continues to generate interest. The

MIT Tangible Media Group

is looking at a near-term design, the TRANSFORM table, that employs 1,000 independently operating columns to change the table surface in response to human gesture. The idea is to move toward furniture that anticipates intent, and morphs accordingly.

A group of scientists in Switzerland is taking the idea of shapeshifting furniture a step further. They've developed a prototype set of small robotic modules called

roombots

that can self-assemble and morph into different shapes. The mobile robots are also designed to hook into walls, floors and existing furniture.

Then there are the really big ideas. The

GIGAbay cargo plane

is a concept design that would use advanced ceramics, fibers and carbon nanotubes to create a massive flying superstructure. The carrying capacity would be so large that, upon landing, the plane could be morphed into a mobile power station, water treatment plant or even a three-story, self-sustaining hospital.