One of the hottest trends in robotics these days is creating something that can act like a miniature transformer and shape-shift between a land rover and a flying drone. Some engineers at Virginia Tech have decided to push this kind of capability to a new extreme, creating a robot that shape-shifts by melting its own metal skeleton to convert from a four-wheeled RC unit into a flying bot.
The robot is made of a specialized alloy that can melt at a mere 140 degrees Fahrenheit—hot, but well below the boiling point of water, and about 10 percent the melting temperature of aluminum. Using a heating apparatus, the robot can deform its skeleton into a shape that’s more appropriate for its desired vehicle form, all in a matter of minutes. And once it’s cool, it’s solid and stable until you want to melt it again.
Yeah, you might be thinking that you’ve seen this story unfold before in a certain 1991 blockbuster. But the work, detailed in a new paper published in Science Robotics this week, is more likely to be used to develop robots that can aid disaster response efforts or help researchers explore extreme environments around the world.
“We’re excited about the opportunities this material presents for multifunctional robots,” Virginia Tech engineer and study co-author Edward Barron III said in a statement. “These composites are strong enough to withstand the forces from motors or propulsion systems, yet can readily shape morph, which allows machines to adapt to their environment.”