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Scientists develop shape-shifting ‘superhero’ robot

Posted on 6 October 2017

Researchers have created a miniature ‘superhero’ robot capable of transforming itself with different ‘outfits’ to perform a variety of tasks.

Inspired by origami, scientists from the University of York and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a magnet-controlled shape-shifting device which can walk, roll, sail on water or glide.  

Dubbed ‘Primer’, the cube-shaped robot carries out these actions by wearing different exoskeletons – accessories which start out as sheets of plastic that fold into specific shapes when heated. After Primer finishes its task, it can shed its ‘skin’ by immersing itself in water, which dissolves the exoskeleton.

Primer’s ability to switch form multiple times to complete different tasks represents a major step forwards in robotics and has potential applications in fields as diverse as healthcare and space exploration.

An article on the research was recently published in Science Robotics.


Video credit: MIT CSAIL

Dr Shuhei Miyashita, a Lecturer with the University of York’s Department of Electronic Engineering and formerly a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), played a leading role in the design and development of the research.

He said: “Despite what you might see in Transformers movies, today’s robots are still pretty inflexible. Each of their parts usually has a fixed structure and a single defined purpose, making it difficult for them to perform a wide variety of actions.

“Having a system that can evolve by itself, self-design, develop and rewrite its functionality is hugely important. With Primer, we’ve developed a system of fabricating robots that lets you have a simple robotic body that you can add special accessories to, giving it the ability to perform a wide range of tasks.”


Primer’s various forms have a range of advantages: ‘Wheel-bot’ has wheels that allow it to move twice as fast as ‘Walk-bot’; ‘Boat-bot’ can float on water and carry nearly twice its weight; and ‘Glider-bot’ can soar across longer distances, which could be useful for deploying robots or switching environments. Primer can also wear multiple outfits at once, like a Russian nesting doll.

Professor Daniela Rus, Director of MIT CSAIL and Principal Investigator on the project, said:  “If we want robots to help us do things, it’s not very efficient to have a different one for each task. With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different accessories to use in different situations.”

While robots that can change their form or function have been developed at larger sizes, generally it’s been difficult to build such structures at much smaller scales. What is also new about Primer is its ability to switch between many, rather than several, different forms.


One of the important potential future applications is in healthcare. The researchers are working on miniature robots that could be ingested into the stomach, travel to a desired location, patch a wound, remove a foreign body and deliver drugs. The robot would then biodegrade.

The Primer robot could also eventually be used for tasks such as space or rescue missions, where the ability to carry out a large number of different actions across varying terrains is a distinct advantage.

As a next step, the researchers plan to explore giving the robots an even wider range of capabilities, from driving through water and burrowing in sand to camouflaging their colour. 

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About this research

Dr Shuhei Miyashita is a Lecturer in Intelligent Robotics with the University of York’s Department of Electronic Engineering. He is lead and corresponding author of the report published in Science Robotics and was involved in designing and developing the research, and supervising the project.

The research was part-funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and was carried out in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).