System Bits: June 16

Origami robot; water-operated computer.

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Origami robot
At the recent International Conference on Robotics and Automation, MIT researchers presented a printable origami robot that folds itself up from a flat sheet of plastic when heated and measures about a centimeter from front to back.

The robot weighs just a third of a gram, and can swim, climb an incline, traverse rough terrain, and carry a load twice its weight. Other than the self-folding plastic sheet, the researchers said the robot’s only component is a permanent magnet affixed to its back with its motions controlled by external magnetic fields.

Cynthia R. Sung, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the robot’s co-developers explained the entire walking motion is embedded into the mechanics of the robot body, compared to previous origami robots that had to be designed with electronics and motors to actuate the body itself.

The MIT researchers' centimeter-long origami robot (Source: MIT)

The MIT researchers’ centimeter-long origami robot
(Source: MIT)

The robot’s design was motivated by a hypothetical application in which tiny sheets of material would be injected into the human body, navigate to an intervention site, fold themselves up, and, when they had finished their assigned tasks, dissolve. To that end, the researchers said they built their prototypes from liquid-soluble materials. One prototype robot dissolved almost entirely in acetone (the permanent magnet remained); another had components that were soluble in water.

Water-operated computer
As unbelievable as it sounds, Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash and his students have developed a synchronous computer that operates using the unique physics of moving water droplets.

Computers and water typically don’t mix, but in Prakash’s lab, the two are one and the same. Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and his students have built a synchronous computer that operates using the unique physics of moving water droplets.

The computer is nearly a decade in the making, incubated from an idea that struck Prakash when he was a graduate student. The work combines his expertise in manipulating droplet fluid dynamics with a fundamental element of computer science – an operating clock.

Stanford Assistant Professor Manu Prakash, left, and graduate students Jim Cybulski and Georgios Katsikis developed the water drop computer. (Source: Stanford University)

Stanford Assistant Professor Manu Prakash, left, and graduate students Jim Cybulski and Georgios Katsikis developed the water drop computer.
(Source: Stanford University)

In this work, a synchronous, universal droplet logic and control has been demonstrated, and because of its universal nature, the droplet computer can theoretically perform any operation that a conventional electronic computer can crunch, although at significantly slower rates. However, Prakash and his colleagues have a more ambitious application in mind: since there are already digital computers to process information, their goal is not to compete with electronic computers or to operate word processors on this, but to build a completely new class of computers that can precisely control and manipulate physical matter. “Imagine if when you run a set of computations that not only information is processed but physical matter is algorithmically manipulated as well. We have just made this possible at the mesoscale,” he offered.

The researchers said the ability to precisely control droplets using fluidic computation could have a number of applications in high-throughput biology and chemistry, and possibly new applications in scalable digital manufacturing.