These flying origami-inspired robots change shape in mid-air

The solar-powered terrors transform in just 25 milliseconds.

University of Washington

Scientists at the University of Washington have developed flying robots that change shape in mid-air, all without batteries, as originally published in the research journal Science Robotics. These miniature Transformers snap into a folded position during flight to stabilize descent. They weigh just 400 milligrams and feature an on-board battery-free actuator complete with a solar power-harvesting circuit.

Here’s how they work. These robots actually mimic the flight of different leaf types in mid-air once they’re dropped from a drone at an approximate height of 130 feet. The origami-inspired design allows them to transform quickly from an unfolded to a folded state, a process that takes just 25 milliseconds. This transformation allows for different descent trajectories, with the unfolded position floating around on the breeze and the folded one falling more directly. Small robots are nothing new, but this is the first solar-powered microflier that allows for control over the descent, thanks to an onboard pressure sensor to estimate altitude, an onboard timer and a simple Bluetooth receiver.

As for the why of it all, the lil baby Starscreams can be equipped with a wide variety of sensors to make surveys as they soar around the sky, so in theory they could gauge temperature, humidity and air quality conditions, among other types of data. Produced at scale, this would be a highly-cost effective way to keep tabs on atmospheric conditions.

The current design only allows them to transition in one direction, from the tumbling state to the falling state, but researchers can control multiple microfliers at the same time, making them disperse upon launch to cover a wider area. They’re working on perfecting the reverse transition to allow the robots to transform back from the falling position to the folded position, which should better allow the microfliers to make precise landings even in turbulent wind.

It’s good to see new robots that don’t resemble a Dr. Who death machine or a headless dog with a thirst for blood. Let’s hear it for innovation! In the meantime, the University of Washington researchers will have plenty of funds to further develop this microflier concept, thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Google fellowship program, among others.