Shape-Shifting Robot Mimics Protein Molecules

milliprotein robot 2YouTube/Video screen capture

It's been said that drones are the future and just this week we gave you a look at nine that were inspired by nature, but drones aren't the only technology taking cues from biology. Biomimicry seems to be the spreading through robotics in general. MIT's latest contribution to this field is a pretty major one: a protein-mimicking robot that can change its shape to become many different tools.

The robot was invented by Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, visiting scientist Ara Knaian and postdoctoral associate Kenneth Cheung. It looks like a mechanical caterpillar, but is actually the smallest chain robot ever built. Called the milli-motein because of its millimeter-sized parts that resemble chains of a protein molecule, the robot is able to be a real-life, if tiny, transformer thanks to some high-tech magnets.

MIT News describes the magnet technology:

The motor is similar in principle to the giant electromagnets used in scrapyards to lift cars, in which a powerful permanent magnet (one that, like an ordinary bar magnet, requires no power) is paired with a weaker magnet (one whose magnetic field direction can be flipped by an electric current in a coil). The two magnets are designed so that their fields either add or cancel, depending on which way the switchable field points. Thus, the force of the powerful magnet can be turned off at will — such as to release a suspended car — without having to power an enormous electromagnet the whole time.

In this new miniature version, a series of permanent magnets paired with electromagnets are arranged in a circle; they drive a steel ring that’s situated around them. The key innovation, Knaian explains, is that “they do not take power in either the on or the off state, but only use power in the changing state,” using minimal energy overall.

milliproteinYouTube/Video screen capture

The milli-motein builds upon previous MIT research on creating any 3-D shape by folding a long string of identical subunits. Using mathematics, researchers proved that any shape could be formed with a long enough string and that once an optimal path to a folded shape is discovered, it can be used universally.

The researchers on this project have combined that mathematical research with robotics in way that could change the field by "turning data into things." The milli-motein could just be the beginning of future robotic systems that can be reconfigured to perform different jobs or become different tools depending on whatever is needed at the time. These multifunctional systems may also be cheaper to manufacture than conventional robots.

You can see the milli-motein in action in the video below.

Shape-Shifting Robot Mimics Protein Molecules
The MIT-designed device is being called a "robotic Swiss Army knife" for its ability to transform into many tools.

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