Michael T. Tolley, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Associate
Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University


 Research 

On this page:

Soft Robotics

Printable Robots

Self-Folding

Programmable Matter

Soft Robotics

While robots are traditionally designed to be as rigid as possible so that they can be easily modeled precisely controlled, nature suggests an alternative approach. Plants and animals exhibit a large range of rigidity, but most are much softer than engineering materials such as steel or injection-molded plastics. Not only does nature tolerate this softness but it embraces it, achieving feats of flexiblity and agility unrivaled in engineered systems. The field of Soft Robotics seeks to draw inspiration from natural systems such as cephalopods, to develop a new breed of robots that is more adaptable to unknown environments and safe to work with. My contribution has been the in the development of untethered soft robots with integrated power and control systems. The following video describes one of these systems.

Printable Robots

The Printable Robots project aims to develop a desktop technology that prints actual programmable hybrid electro-mechanical devices from simple descriptions on-demand, anywhere, and with performance one would expect from a team of professional engineers, using advanced materials. The project aims to transform manufacturing as dramatically as the personal computer democratized information technology and transformed how we communicate. My contribution to the Printable Robots project has been the development of origami-inspired design and fabrication approaches for the fabrication of function electromechanical machines such as the crawler and gripper seen in the following video.

Self-Folding

While the machines shown above were manually folded, our goal is to have them fold themselves. Self-folding would limit the technical skill required of the user and would enable autonomous deployment. (For space exploration missions, for example, machines could be shipped in a compact form and assemble themselves on arrival.) The following video highlights a recent result published in Science Magazine in which we demonstrated a legged robot which folds itself from a flat form and walks away without human intervention.

Programmable Matter

Programmable matter is a substance that is able to change its physical properties as directed. Imagine a system that assembles a pile of regular, mass-produced components into an iPod, computer, robot, or tool with embedded sensing and computation. Objects can be assembled or repaired on-the-fly, and deconstructed to be recycled into new objects when they are no longer needed. This technology would open up new possibilities for rapid prototyping, space exploration, sustainable technology, and evolutionary design.

Our approach to programmable matter involves the assembly of components by manipulating the flow of fluid through an assembly chamber. My work has involved the development of a custom simulator to develop control strategies capable of overcoming the stochasticity in the assembly environment. Additionally, I have performed experiments in which 500 by 500 by 30 micron silicon tiles are assembled automatically into pre- determined structures.