Scientists from the US have created robots capable of shape-shifting, allowing them to adapt to an array of different tasks.

The technology is capable of walking, rolling, sailing and gliding using a variety of recyclable exoskeletons.

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The innovative robotics come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT CSAIL) – and it’s developers say the technology could one day be used in scenarios ranging from deep-sea construction to disaster-relief.

The technology starts as sheets of plastic, before being programmed with a precise series of indentations. These creases mean they will fold into specific shapes when heated – shapes which can then perform a unique task.

A diagram showing the different exoskeletons
(Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL)

“We view this robot as a kind-of Swiss army knife that could be used for a range of tasks,” Shuhei Miyashita, who wrote the paper, told the Press Association. “Imagine you’re in a disaster relief scenario and have to cross a river to move some heavy gear.

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“Instead of creating two robots for the two tasks, you can use a single robot with multiple exoskeletons that enable it to boat across the river and then carry payloads on the other side.”

The boat bot

Miyashita added: “Our team’s work has previously shown that it’s possible to create robots that can assemble themselves into different shapes, as well as really small robots that can be customised to fold into specific shapes from sheets of plastic.

“This builds nicely on that work to develop a basic robot body and fine-tuned ‘super-suits’ (exoskeletons) that the body can pick up and drop off for different tasks.”

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