Origami has plenty to offer the world of robotics, with folding devices designed to remove foreign objects from the stomach and others that can dress up in different exoskeletons just a couple of the more interesting examples we've come across. Joining them is an origami tower-shaped soft robot that can grasp objects and could safely interact with humans, possibly even as a tool for invasive surgeries.

The robot has been dubbed Twister and was developed by Kiju Lee, a mechanical and aerospace engineering researcher, in her lab at Case Western Reserve University. The design was inspired by the origami twisted tower made famous by a Japanese artist called Mihoko Tachibana, which organizes an assortment of triangles, hexagons and octagons into a bending, contracting and twisting tubular tower.

To begin with, Lee created her tower using paper, but has now done so using 3D printing with cable-based actuators and a two-pronged grasper on the end. Suspended from above, this bendable, inverted tower can grab hold of delicate objects below, such as eggs and ripe fruit, with the grasper deforming to absorb any excess force and prevent damage to the goods.

"Among the possibilities for this robot are fragile-object manipulation and direct human-robot interaction, because these robots are soft and safe," says Lee. "Twister is very different from rigid body robots."

Like all soft robots, this kind of device could offer a safer alternative to its hard-bodied counterparts, which are typically kept away from humans in manufacturing applications. The researchers say Twister could be used right alongside humans on an assembly line thanks to its soft materials. Lee has also held discussions with physicians about how the robot could be miniaturized and used for minimally invasive surgeries.

"Laproscopic surgery often requires some rigid pieces, and movement to control them from the outside causes stress on the tissues," Lee says.

Lee has also been investigating how Twister could be adapted for use in outer space as a robotic arm.

"To put anything into space, volume and weight are critical, because of the cost of rocket transport," she says. "This robot is fully collapsible and, compared to a rigid arm, light and compact."

Lee presented a study detailing the robot at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vancouver last week.

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