Monday, December 3, 2012

MIT builds foldable Transformers robots

Sometimes science fiction turns into reality. That is the case with the recent success in building a cyborg and achieving teleportation. Speaking of science fiction, everybody knows that the robots from Transformers are not real. However, it could very well be that we will be capable of building such robots in the future. The required technology has been delivered by engineers from MIT.

Transformer robots are capable of turning into different shapes. How they do so is completely science fiction, but we have something in our bodies that also undergoes a transformation: proteins. In order to construct a protein, a cell first generates a long string of amino acids, which are its building blocks. The structure of the amino acid chain determines the eventual 3D structure of the protein, which is achieved by means of folding. At MIT, engineers attempted to build something similar, but instead made it robot-like.

Instead of using amino acids, the scientists from MIT used magnets. According to the researchers, they used a coil of coupled magnets that work in similar fashion as those that pick up cars in a scrapyard. Such systems work with a large and a small magnet, and the latter one is capable of alternating its magnetic field. This either reinforces or cancels out the power of the larger magnet. The benefit of directing magnetic force in this way, is that it is not necessary to provide a constant supply of energy to the large magnet.

MIT has dubbed their magnet system an electropermanent motor, and this is used to power each subunit of the robot they have created. It has been dubbed a 'milli-motein' and consists of several similar subunits, each having the ability of changing their conformation. Because all parts of the milli-motein can change in shape, it has the possibility to attain all possible conformations, as long as the individual subunits are small enough. MIT succeeded in creating a milli-motein of a size of only 1cm, but they are also working on robots that are human-sized, which means that we ought to see some 'real' Transformers once they finish this work.

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