Robotapillar: the fusion of origami and engineering

14th May 2024
Sheryl Miles

Engineers from Princeton and North Carolina State University have crafted a soft robot called the 'Robotapillar' to wiggle past the current limitations of traditional robotics when in tight or dangerous spaces.

The Robotapillar, with its modular, cylindrical segments, is designed to operate either as independent units or to link together, forming an extended, adaptable structure which allows the robot to navigate through complex mazes with agility and precision.

Taking inspiration from the ancient, and decorative, pastime of origami (or paper folding), the Robotapillar’s design is a mixture of traditional design techniques and modern materials science.

The goal of the Robotapillar

The Robotapillar is designed primarily for industries like medical, construction, and aerospace engineering, where manoeuvring in constrained spaces is critical. Traditional rigid robots, limited by their bulk and inflexibility, often fail in these types of environment.

The Robotapillar's design allows it to maintain flexibility while incorporating an integrated steering system which enables it to crawl forwards and backwards, navigate tight spaces, carry loads, and assemble into various configurations on command. This versatility is particularly advantageous in environments requiring delicate and precise movements.


Developing the Robotapillar required the teams to overcome several challenges:

  • Integrated steering: embedding the steering mechanisms within the body of the Robotapillar was crucial to preserve its flexibility while enhancing its navigational capabilities.
  • Control of movement and shape: the use of electrothermal actuation, where segments expand or contract in response to heat, allows precise control over the robot’s movements. This was achieved through a combination of liquid crystal elastomer and polyimide, materials that react distinctively to thermal changes.
  • Modularity and coordination: ensuring that each segment could function independently and in sync when connected was essential. Magnets facilitate easy assembly and separation, and a sophisticated communication system enables dynamic reconfiguration during operations.
  • Material selection: choosing materials capable of enduring the physical and thermal stresses of operation involved rigorous testing, ensuring durability and consistent performance.
  • Innovative design: each segment of the Robotapillar features a form of origami known as the Kresling pattern, which allows the segments to twist into flattened disks and then expand back into cylinders. This design is pivotal for the robot's ability to alter its shape and direction smoothly, powered by an electrothermal actuator fitted with a silver nanowire heater that adjusts the bending and folding of segments with precision.

The development team continues to refine the Robotapillar, seeking enhancements in speed and manoeuvrability and experimenting with various shapes and patterns to boost operational efficiency.

Supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, their ongoing research enhances the Robotapillar's functionalities whilst contributing to the field of soft robotics.

The work being carried out is setting new benchmarks for what soft robots can achieve, promising a change in how tasks are approached in constrained and delicate environments.

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