The Engineering Life--Around the Web
If Oscar Wilde was right and life imitates art, I wonder what heíd have thought of milli-motein, a tiny robotic device designed with biological proteins in mind, and able to fold itself into any shape it pleases.
In short, itís a robot that can do what so many of us humans try and fail to do regularly; reinvent itself.
In its original form it doesnít really look like much. A piece of scrap metal comprised of a few rings and strips. A bobbin. A thingamigig. That sort of thing. But give it half a chance and the little creature can apparently transform itself into the most complex forms.
Invented by head of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, Neil Gershenfeld along with visiting scientist Ara Knaian and graduate student Kenneth Cheung, the robot boasts an entirely new kind of motor called an electropermanent motor, which can hold its position even with power off. The little machine is also made out of one continuous strip, without conventionally moving parts.
The researchers have described the motor as one similar to the massive electromagnets that lift cars prior to crushing in the scrapyard, where a strong magnet and weak magnet are paired so they can either give each other a boost or cancel each other out as necessary.
Photo: MIT Center for Bits and Atoms
On the milli-motein scale, this means having a few permanent magnets paired up with circularly arranged electromagnets to drive a steel ring which surrounds them. This way "they do not take power in either the on or the off state, but only use power in the changing state," explained Knaian, making them incredibly energy efficient.
The robot was designed on a principle hypothesized by Cheung and other MIT professors and students previously, which claimed that mathematically, it was possible to make any 3-D shape by folding a sufficiently long string.
Gershenfeld has said the robot also represents a new way of "turning data into things," with the ultimate goal being to digitize materials to shape themselves, rather than them having to be manufactured. This would be the ultimate in programmable matter, where machines imitate life, and reproduce, like cells in biology.
Itís not the first time people have bandied about the notion that machines could eventually build themselves, and the whole 3-D printing revolution is adding to the craze, with people wondering how to print 3-D printers with 3-D printers. Yes, wrap your minds around that, if you can.
What would be different about the milli-motein is that itís not just a device that could change its own form, but one that could change its entire behavior, almost like a genetically mutating virus.
Gershenfeld said the robots could even link up to make themselves human sized, pointing out "Biology is the existence proof that it is possible."
Scary or just super cool? Let us know in the comments below.