Your eyes don’t deceive you: researchers have created an actual humanoid shape-shifting robot — or in their parlance, “shape-morphing” — capable of liquefying and then reforming itself again. In other words, the lilliputian bot looks a lot like a prototype of the T-1000 in 1991’s “Terminator 2,” once again proving that you should never doubt the visions of James Cameron.
In a new study published in the journal Cells, the researchers wanted to bridge the gap between traditional, hard-bodied robots and “soft” robots typically made of more malleable but consequently weaker materials. Inspired by squishy sea cucumbers, they saw the shifting between states as the best path forward.
And clearly, that worked out for them. Have a look at this demonstration in which a robot shaped like a LEGO minifigure melts through tiny prison bars, in a clear homage to one of Robert Patrick’s most iconic scenes in Cameron’s action epic.
To accomplish this, the team created a novel form of gallium based, phase-shifting material called “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional matter” (MPTM).
Whereas other phase-shifting materials require an external heat source like heat guns and electrical currents, MPTM needs only be induced by a magnetic field before heating up, thanks to magnetic particles embedded in the gallium.
These, combined with the metal’s low melting point of just under 86 degrees Fahrenheit, make it easy for a robot made of the stuff to liquefy relatively quickly.
“The magnetic particles here have two roles,” explained senior author Carmel Majidi, an engineer from Carnegie Mellon University, in a press release. “One is that they make the material responsive to an alternating magnetic field, so you can, through induction, heat up the material and cause the phase change. But the magnetic particles also give the robots mobility and the ability to move in response to the magnetic field.”
The researchers believe MPTM could have useful — albeit highly specific — applications in engineering and medical challenges.
In addition to the “T2” demonstration, the team also used their bot, this time taking the more practical shape of a thin block, to extract a foreign object from a model human stomach by melting over it and then wriggling out of the organ.
“Future work should further explore how these robots could be used within a biomedical context,” Majidi said. “What we’re showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but much more study will be required to delve into how this could actually be used for drug delivery or for removing foreign objects.”
We can hope that’s how the remarkable technology will pan out — as opposed to it being used to hunt down humanity’s John Connors.