This undated handout image provided by the journal Science shows a self-folding crawling robot in three stages.

New York - In what may be the birth of cheap, easy-to-make robots, researchers have created complex machines that transform themselves from little more than a sheet of paper and plastic into walking automatons.

Borrowing from the ancient Japanese art of origami, children’s toys, and even a touch of the Transformers movies, scientists and engineers at Harvard and MIT created self-assembling paper robots.

They are made out of hobby shop materials that cost about $100 (about R1 000). After the installation of tiny batteries and motors, a paper robot rises on four stumpy legs and starts scooting in a herky-jerky manner. It transforms from flat paper to jitterbugging four-legged robot in just four minutes.

This small lightweight type of robot could explore outer space and other dangerous environments, and get into cramped places for search-and-rescue missions, researchers said. But that’s just the start of what may be a long-envisioned robotic revolution.

This eventually could be as technology-changing as the 3D printer, said experts unconnected with the study and Harvard robotics researcher Sam Felton, who is lead author of the paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Felton and study co-author Daniela Rus of MIT say they see a time when someone who wants a dog-walking robot would go to a store that has specialised equipment to make the device — “some sort of robo-Kinkos,” Felton said.

“In principle it will be possible to say, ‘I want a robot to play chess with me,’ and generate a machine that has the computational abilities to play chess with you,” Rus said.

Today it costs a lot of money to build a robot, but this method is fast, cheap and specialised, Rus said.

“This is a simple, flexible, and rapid design process and a step toward the dream of realising the vision of 24-hour robot manufacturing,” Rus said.

These robots aren’t quite the Transformers of movie and cartoon fame. Once they assemble themselves automatically with heat-activated hinges that allow the folding, there are no more changes, Rus and Felton said. - Sapa-AP