Origami’s influence on robotics continues to evolve, with researchers at the University of Washington developing microfliers that dynamically change their shape in midair after being dropped from drones. These microfliers, described in a new study published in Science Robotics, employ the Miura-ori folding method, inspired by natural leaf patterns, to adapt their form while gliding through the air and collecting environmental data.

In their initial descent from drones, the microfliers fall in an unfolded, flat state, resembling the way an elm leaf descends chaotically. Equipped with tiny onboard pressure sensors, timers, and Bluetooth signals, the robots adjust their shape mid-flight to control airflow and achieve a more stable descent, similar to maple leaves. According to Vikram Iyer, a co-senior author of the study, origami offers a new design approach for microfliers, enabling highly energy-efficient, battery-free control of their descent.

Due to their lightweight construction, weighing approximately 400 milligrams (about half the weight of a nail), these microfliers can cover the length of a football field when released from a height of just 40 meters (131 feet). Battery-free, solar-powered actuators activate at customizable intervals, allowing precise control over their interaction with the surrounding air and direction of descent. Researchers anticipate that deploying the robots at different times will enhance their distribution coverage. The folding process initiates in just 25 milliseconds, ensuring precise timing.

Although the current microfliers transition in a single direction, future versions may have the capability to change shape in both directions, improving landing precision, especially in turbulent weather conditions. Researchers envision these microfliers as valuable sensors for environmental and atmospheric surveys. The current models can transmit air temperature and pressure data via Bluetooth signals up to 60 meters (196 feet) away, with potential for expanded capabilities and reach in the future.

Origami’s influence on robotics continues to inspire innovative designs and applications, ranging from flexible mechanobots for tight spaces to origami-inspired lattice designs for vehicles and spacecraft.

By Impact Lab