One of the great sci-fi villains was the T-1000 shape-shifting robot from Terminator 2.
The robot’s ability to switch between solid and liquid form meant it could dodge almost any obstacle, including metal bars – and it created some iconic and terrifying scenes.
Now scientists have created a mini version of the T-1000. While it looks more like a Lego figure than a terrifying human-sized robot from the far future, like the T-1000 it can transform into a fluid shape to avoid obstacles.
Fortunately, that’s where the similarities end for now. The robot is controlled by magnetic particles embedded in its material.
This gives it the ability to melt to a liquid form and solidify again when heated and cooled, induced by an alternating magnetic field.
It also allows the team to control the robot’s movement in response to a given magnetic field.
Scientists hope that one day the discovery could help in many fields, from medicine to assembly lines, where the material could, for example, make it easier to solder and screw parts in hard-to-reach places.
Publishing the results of your research in the journal Matterscientists explained how they used metallic gallium because it has a very low melting point of 29.8 ° C.
A shape-shifting robot
By heating and cooling the robot, they were able to demonstrate how it could melt through the gaps in the metal bars before taking its shape again.
“By giving robots the ability to switch between a liquid and a solid state, we give them greater functionality,” said Chengfeng Pan, an engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who led the study.
“One of them is that they make the material respond to a changing magnetic field, so you can, by induction, heat the material and cause a phase change. But the magnetic particles also give the robots mobility and the ability to move in response to the magnetic field.”
The idea was actually inspired by sea cucumbers and other animals in nature that can alternate between rigid and flaccid states to either improve their carrying capacity or prevent environmental damage.
According to the researchers, traditional robots are hard and rigid, while “soft” robots are flexible but weak.
The team succeeded in creating a “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase change machine” – a phase-changing robot that does not rely on heat guns, electric currents or other external heat sources such as existing phase-changing materials.
Robot for hard-to-reach places
In addition to slipping through bars, the robot was also tested as it jumped over moats, climbed walls, and even split in half to move other objects before returning to itself.
“Now we are moving this material system in a more practical way to solve some very specific medical and engineering problems,” says Pan.
The team demonstrated how robots can remove foreign bodies from a model stomach, as well as how they can deliver drugs on demand to the same stomach.
They also showed how the material can act as smart soldering robots to assemble and repair wireless circuits – penetrating hard-to-reach circuits and acting as both solder and conductor.
They can also be used as a universal mechanical screw for mounting parts in hard-to-reach places by melting into the screw’s threaded socket and then solidifying.
“Future work should further explore how these robots could be used in a biomedical context,” says Majidi.
“What we’re showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but much more research is needed to delve into how this could actually be used to deliver drugs or remove foreign bodies.”