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Robotic helpers? Scientists tout cheap robot that assembles itself

By Richard Valdmanis

BOSTON (Reuters) - Scientists say they have developed a low-cost robot prototype made from paper and children's trinkets that can assemble itself and perform a task without human help.

The technology could eventually lead to affordable 'robotic helpers' for use in everything from household chores to exploring space, according to the team of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers who developed it.

"Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we've been chasing for many years," said Rob Wood of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The prototype was jointly announced by Harvard and MIT on Thursday.

The team's robot prototype borrows mechanical principles from the ancient Japanese paper-folding art of origami, as well as from Shrinky Dinks - plastic children's toys that shrink into predictable shapes when heated.

The prototype was made from a flat sheet of composite paper, embedded with Shrinky Dink bits, hinges, motors, batteries, and a microcontroller. Once the batteries are placed in the robot, it begins to fold into shape and perform its task.

In this case, it crawls away at a speed of one-tenth of a mile per hour. But the engineers have high hopes the low-budget robots will eventually become more useful.

Wood said they could one day be printed on 3D printers, sold in stores for $100, and programed to do things such as sweep your porch or detect gas leaks in your neighborhood.

"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.

They could also be used in space.

"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," said Sam Felton, a Harvard Ph. D student who co-authored the research. "They could take images, collect data, and more."

Felton said the prototype robots still have some problems, though, including a propensity to burn up before they have folded into shape. "There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step," said Felton.

(Editing by James Dalgleish)

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