Although a few engineers have created transformer-like creations, the designs suffer from inflexibility compared to their movie counterparts. To meet this challenge, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created Primer—a shapeshifting, cube-shaped robot.
Controlled via magnets, the machine can walk, roll, float, and glide. In order to complete these tasks, the device changes its exoskeleton. To begin, the outerwear starts as a sheet of plastic that folds into the desired “skin” when heat is applied. Once Primer is ready for a new look, it can dissolve its current exoskeleton by immersing itself in water.
Primer also can don multiple exoskeletons simultaneously. This creates a larger outer shell that can perform an increased range of tasks.
“If we want robots to help us do things, it’s not very efficient to have a different one for each task. With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different ‘accessories’ to use in different situations,” says Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and principal investigator on the project.
According to the researchers, multiple industries could benefit from a versatile robotic system. This includes transporting materials across varying terrain, such as carrying equipment by stream and transitioning to a journey on land. In addition, since the heating process takes only a matter of seconds, this approach could lead to a quicker fabrication of future designs.
“Imagine future applications for space exploration, where you could send a single robot with a stack of exoskeletons to Mars,” says Shuguang Li, one of the co-authors of the study. “The robot could then perform different tasks by wearing different ‘outfits.’”
Next, the team aims to broaden Primer’s capabilities, including burrowing in sand and diving in water. To learn more, an article detailing CSAIL’s work can be found in the journal Science Robotic.
Watch the mini-transformer in action in the video below.