Devin Balkcom, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student in robotics, has built the world's first origami-folding robot as the subject of his thesis. Origami, the geometry of paper folding, looks simple when you're a kid. But it's actually quite challenging to design a robot to do it. Movements are quite complex, and paper, because it is flexible, is difficult to be manipulated by a robot. This news release says that the project uses kinematics, the study of mechanisms, to determine how folding is done and how paper can be treated as a flexible and rigid material.
Here is what says the student about origami.
"It's something we humans can do well, but we don't understand the mechanical details," said Balkcom. "Because a five-year-old child can learn to fold origami, we assume that it is a simple process, but the movements it requires are quite complex."
Here is how he designed his robot.
Balkcom built his origami robot with an industrial mechanical arm produced by Adept Technology, of Livermore, Calif. The robot uses a tiny suction cup attached to the arm to pick the paper up, rotate it and place it over a narrow gutter in the worktable. Then a ruler descends and presses the paper into the gutter to create a crease. This method is much less precise than a human and brings to light some interesting insights and questions about mechanisms.
You can see below the robot at work.
||This frame is extracted from a video showing the robot building a paper airplane (Credit: Devin Balkcom. Here is a link to this movie (QuickTime format, 3 MB).|
||This one comes from another film showing the robot building a paper hat (Credit: Devin Balkcom. Here is a link to this movie (QuickTime format, 8 MB).|
So what will this student envision after building this first origami folding robot?
"Robots are a tool for understanding the physics and mathematics of the world around us," he said. "Once you build a robot that can duplicate human tasks, you can learn more about human skills that we often take for granted."
For more information about Balkcom's work, you can visit this page.
Finally, if you want to refresh your memory about origami, check this Wikipedia article.
Sources: Carnegie Mellon University press release, May 13, 2004, via EurekAlert!; and various websites