Image of trefoil-shaped electronics.

Enlarge / A Tribot leaps ahead of its peers. (credit: EPFL)

Robots have traditionally been roughly humanoid in form, which has some obvious advantages, in that the robots are better able to integrate into a human-designed environment. But there are lots of environments that aren’t human designed, and researchers have been experimenting with robotic forms that look more like insects or fish. Now, a team of Swiss researchers has produced a robot that looks like nothing more than a walking circuit board. Despite its small size, though, the robot is able to move by hopping, leaping, or walking, and it can even work in a group to coordinate activities.

Meet Tribot

The team calls its creation Tribot, for reasons that are obvious from its photo above. Tribot looks like a tiny circuit board because that’s what it largely is, but there are some significant additions to the circuitry. One is a small lithium polymer battery, which means all the power for its motions and circuits are carried on board. The motions are powered by what’s called a shape-memory alloy, which can be deformed at one temperature but snap back into place once the temperature is changed. Flexible hinges and a polymer core allow these “muscles” to move any of the three legs either gradually or with a sudden snap, all enabled by tiny heaters embedded in the hardware.

Another interesting feature of the robot is its construction. The circuit board and polymer are originally made as a flat, triangular unit. A couple of folds are all that’s needed to convert this shape into the Tribot’s trefoil design.

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