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The true transformers: Cheap and fast robots can now assemble themselves from sheet of paper

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WASHINGTON - In what may be the birth of cheap, easy-to-make robots, researchers have created complex machines that transform themselves from little more than a sheet of paper and plastic into walking automatons.

Borrowing from the ancient Japanese art of origami, children's toys and even a touch of the "Transformers" movies, scientists and engineers at Harvard and MIT created self-assembling, paper robots. They are made out of hobby shop materials that cost about $100. After the installation of tiny batteries and motors, a paper robot rises on four stumpy legs and starts scooting in a herky-jerky manner. It transforms from flat paper to jitterbugging four-legged robot in just four minutes.

This small lightweight type of robot could explore outer space and other dangerous environments, and get into cramped places for search-and-rescue missions, researchers said. But that's just the start of what may be a long-envisioned robotic revolution.

This eventually could be as technology-changing as the three-dimensional printer, said experts unconnected with the study and Harvard robotics researcher Sam Felton, who is lead author of the paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Felton and study co-author Daniela Rus of MIT say they see a time when someone who wants a dog-walking robot would go to a store that has specialized equipment to make the device — "some sort of robo-Kinkos," Felton said.

And eventually the technology could produce more complex machines.

"In principle it will be possible to say, 'I want a robot to play chess with me,' and generate a machine that has the computational abilities to play chess with you," Rus said.

Today it costs a lot of money to build a robot, but this method is fast, cheap and specialized, Rus said.

"This is a simple, flexible and rapid design process and a step toward the dream of realizing the vision of 24-hour robot manufacturing," Rus said.

These robots aren't quite Transformers of movie and cartoon fame. Once they assemble themselves automatically with heat-activated hinges that allow the folding, there are no more changes, Rus and Felton said.

The robots themselves start out a bit smaller than a normal 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper. Off-the-shelf batteries and motors are embedded at a cost of about $80. Altogether, the early machines researchers made, along with the equipment to build them, cost less than $1,000 apiece, Felton said.

The robots, which the researchers did not name, are about 6 inches long, 6 inches wide, and about 2 inches tall. They weigh less than 3 ounces. They move about 2 inches per second. But they can be made bigger or smaller, with some limitations, Felton said.

He said the way heating activates the hinges was inspired by the children's toy line Shrinky Dinks, which shrivel and fold when put in the oven.

Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks, an MIT emeritus professor who wasn't part of the research, said this could be close to other momentous changes in technology, such as the first 3-D printers or even 1947's ENIAC early computer.

"Lots more people will join in working on these techniques, each making incremental progress and decades from now we'll wonder why it took so long to get where we'll then be with it," Brooks said in an email.

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Online:

The journal Science: http://www.sciencemag.org

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Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears

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