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Ryuma Niiyama from the University of Tokyo and colleagues from MIT have collaborated to produce a new way to create simple robots from everyday objects. They have designed stick-on inflatable pouches that expand, contract, and bend when filled with air. They can be used to bring origami creations to life, close drawers, and make small robots move without the need for motors or electronics.
The inflatable pouch motors are called free-form planar soft actuators. The actuators are printed on a custom-built fabrication machine that consists of a 3-axis CNC machine that holds a rod that can be heated. The iron is moved over two sheets of thermoplastic to bond them. The bonding leaves patterns of interlocking, inflatable pouches. They can also be made with a 3D printer.
A tube with a syringe on one end can be used to inflate and deflate the actuator. They require only tubing and a steady supply of air, which can be generated with a powered compressor or hand pump.
The researchers who developed the inflatable pouches believe they could be used to make simple robots that could perform household tasks, such as folding laundry. If they broke, owners could simply print new inflatable pouches as replacement parts.
The researchers conducted a study to find out how people with no robotics experience could use the actuators. They taught 40 children how to fold origami and use the sticky actuators and then had them develop their own creations. The children enjoyed the activity and found it challenging.