It looks like a mechanical worm, but it’s a sophisticated building block that takes science one step closer to developing devices that can change shape. Maybe ‘Transformers,’ robots capable of transforming into vehicles and weapons, long a children’s favorite, will no longer be the stuff of science fiction, but rather science fact.
The Millimeter-Scale Motorized Protein, or Milli-Motein, can change shape, folding in on itself in a variety of ways. It’s motive power comes from miniature engines chained together, and wrapped in a flexible circuit which enables it to be programmed. The Milli-Motein is a “mechanical protein”, modeled after biological proteins, which can transform themselves into an infinite variety of complex shapes. The idea is that any 3-D shape can be formed, no matter how complicated, by a sufficiently long milli-motein.
The milli-motein is the brainchild of MIT Center for Bits and Atoms director Neil Gershenfeld, and scientists Ara Knaian and Kenneth Cheung. The device required the invention of a new kind of miniature engine called an “electropermanent motor.” It works similarly to large-scale electromagnetic motors, utilizing a combination of strong and weak magnets that attract or repel according to whether they are switched on or off. In addition to being small and strong, the electropermanent motor is energy efficient. It doesn’t require energy to hold its shape, but only when changing.
The researchers at MIT are in the preliminary steps of this exciting development.
Near-term applications could include “using the motors as control surface actuators in electric airplanes, searching for survivors in disaster rubble, programmable shape endoscope tip/injectable medical robots [and] construction and/or exploration in outer space,” said MIT’s Knaian.
They are still looking for the “killer app,” but that can’t be far off.