Groundbreaking polygon shape-changing robot for space exploration


Researchers around the world are beginning to create robots that can adapt their own morphology and behaviors on demand. By changing the body shape and how it moves, the shape-changing robot can address a wider range of functions or environments than is possible with a fixed or rigid structure.

Researchers at EPFL‘s School of Engineering have created an origami-like robot that can change shape, move around and interact with objects and people.

The Mori3 robot combines inspiration from the digital world of polygon meshing and the biological world of swarm behavior, thanks to which the robot can morph from 2D triangles into almost any 3D object. The research shows the promise of modular robotics for space travel.

“Our aim with Mori3 is to create a modular, origami-like robot that can be assembled and disassembled at will depending on the environment and task at hand,” says Jamie Paik, director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab. “Mori3 can change its size, shape, and function.”

The Mori3 robot consists of triangular modules that easily join together to create polygons of different sizes and configurations in a process known as polygon meshing. The team achieves this by pushing the boundaries of various aspects of robotics design, including mechanical and electronic design and computer systems.

“We had to rethink the way we understand robotics,” explains Christoph Belke, a Post-doctoral researcher in robotics. “These robots can change their own shape, attach to each other, communicate and reconfigure to form functional and articulated structures.”

According to researchers, the proof of concept is a success as Mori3 shape-shifting robots are good at doing three things – moving around under their own power, interacting with users, and handling and transporting objects.

“Polygonal and polymorphic robots that connect to one another to create articulated structures can be used effectively for a variety of applications,” Paik says. “Of course, a general-purpose robot like Mori3 will be less effective than specialized robots in certain areas. That said, Mori3’s biggest selling point is its versatility.”

The Mori3 shape-shifting robot has been created to fit in spacecraft, which doesn’t have room to store different robots for each individual task that needs to be carried out. The team also hopes the robots will be used for communication purposes and external repairs.

Journal reference:

  1. Christoph H. Belke, Kevin Holdcroft, Alexander Sigrist, and Jamie Paik. Morphological flexibility in robotic systems through physical polygon meshing. Nature Machine Intelligence, 2023; DOI: 10.1038/s42256-023-00676-8
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