Jamie Paik, director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL) from Lausanne, is specialized in researching how to create machines capable of "adapting to multiple tasks in unfamiliar environments". She and her team develop above all models with sizes of a few centimeters and equipped with mini-motors and intelligent sensors. Among the prototypes they experience are the robots origami (or robogamis), inspired by Japanese art – also known as origami – which consists of folding a paper to obtain figures of various shapes.
The researcher explains that the first to introduce this model, a decade ago, were some mathematicians from the MIT of Boston (USA). "They developed an algorithm that shows how you can create any object in three dimensions if you work from origami structures," the engineer assures EL PAÍS. From that idea, she and her group began to ask themselves: "How can we turn it into reality?".
The robotsorigami developed in his laboratory are composed of rigid and thin modules, very small size and equipped with microcomponents that give them capabilities such as jumping or crawling. If you combine these layers between them, you can build architectures that bend and reconfigure according to the required functionality. "What interests us is the concept behind it, that you can start from a single piece of paper to build the shape of an airplane or a car," says Paik. In his opinion, putting this design scheme into practice means, in other words, being able to "create 3D robots in a 2D world".
Designing and building machines of this type entails multiple advantages, says this researcher. "Two-dimensional layers with these characteristics can be manufactured massively and quickly and cheaply," he explains. "And because the robot reconfigures itself in a three-dimensional structure, there is no need for the various parts to be assembled manually," he adds. The result is a robot "that adapts better to the needs of the user" and does not involve high production costs, as he maintains.
Paik considers the robogamis as an example of a soft robot. Among the characteristics that are usually attributed to this type of machines (called in English soft robots), There are the multifunctionality and the fact that they are composed of flexible materials such as silicone or rubber. In the opinion of the director of the RRL, the concept of flexibility can also refer to the design of robots, and that is why it includes in this category those that are based on origami. "A prototype made up of sufficiently small and thin pieces can be flexible even though they are made of a rigid material," he says.
The development of reconfigurable machines opens new perspectives for robotics, according to Paik. This type of technology could be useful, in the future, for search and rescue operations or explorations in space, says this Canadian engineer installed in Switzerland and with a curriculum built between universities like Harvard and companies such as Samsung and Mitsubishi. "In the field of space missions, the cost to transport any component is very high," he explains. "For that reason, you can not send many robots. With small and multifunctional models, greater freedom of action would be achieved ".
While waiting to be able to see a robot of this type to other planets, in the RRL have been made prototypes for other uses. One of them is a joystick for the control of actions in virtual reality, based on an origami structure. "When you do not use it, it's completely flat. But it is sensitive to touch and can become an object in three dimensions, "explains Paik.
Reconfigurable models have also been created, some made of flexible materials, intended for the medical field. One, for example, consists of pneumatic elements and serves to stiffen the back of people with lower back problems. Another is a two-dimensional device equipped with touch sensitive sensors, which is applied on top of a patient's skin. This prototype It transmits bidirectional signals between the carrier and a control computer and can be useful for the rehabilitation of people with motor difficulties.
"The new technologies are advancing very fast, but we still do not feel that robots can give us many advantages in our day-to-day life," reflects Paik. We have to bring them closer to everyday life, "he adds. The researcher indicates the areas of physiotherapy and in general physical well-being and sports among those who can most benefit from the development of these machines. "I'm not looking to just create robots based on the model of origami, but machines that can be used in a safe and personalized way. That they are useful, according to the case, for people with different characteristics and adaptable both to the needs of a child and those of an elderly person ".