The Origami Wheels on These Robots Change Shape As They Roll

If you thought origami was just a delicate, ornamental art, then come meet these robots. These (deliberately) deformable little wheelers can climb over obstacles, squeeze under crevasses, and basically change gears automatically.

At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation this month, two research projects from Seoul National University had led to clever origami-inspired wheels. The flexible, changeable wheels had some real advantages over rubber.

The robot you see at the top has wheels inspired by a magic ball pattern. Its wheels can change from a diameter of just over two inches to nearly five. Watch it expand its wheels to climb over obstacles and then shrink them to squeeze under a wall in the video below.

A second robot has "continuously variable transmission," which is a technical way of saying it can essentially switch gears automatically. Switching gears lets us trade off between speed and force. Large wheels mean the robot can move fast but can't haul much heavy stuff. Small wheels mean the opposite. The special shape of the origami wheel means it can detect the optimum wheel radius for its speed and load, collapsing into the right size. Not bad for some folded plastic. [IEEE Spectrum]