Terminator’s Shape-Shifting Liquid Metal Robot is Here, Kinda

Terminator’s Shape-Shifting Liquid Metal Robot is Here, Kinda

“This is a video of a person-shaped robot liquefying itself to escape from a cage, after which it is extracted and reshaped into its original form.” GIF: Wang and Pan et al. (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Science fiction is often several steps ahead of the real world when it comes to discussing new technologies. In 1991, groundbreaking visual effects helped bring the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 robot to life in James Cameron’s Terminator 2, but 32 years later, shape-shifting robots now exist in real life thanks to groundbreaking research in phase-shifting materials.

Is this robot a perfect recreation of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character, which could take the form of any object or even a person sampled through physical contact? No, not even close. Created by a team from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, led by engineer Chengfeng Pan, this robot is also not designed to travel through time in order to prevent the birth of important historical figures. Rather, it is intended as an engineering and medical tool, for performing tasks or solving problems in places where tools are difficult to obtain.

There are currently two approaches to building robots. There are strong, nimble robots made from rigid materials like metal or carbon fiber, and there are robots made from softer, malleable materials that sacrifice strength for the ability to clasp and squeeze. a path in more places. This robot takes a best-of-both-worlds approach and is inspired by sea cucumbers, whose spongy bodies can easily squeeze through tight spots, but then stiffen up in seconds using enzymes that cause binding protein fibers.

Instead of relying on proteins, as detailed in a new paper published in the scientific journal Matter, this robot is made from a newly developed phase-shifting material that the researchers call “liquid-solid phase transition material”. magnetoactive”, or MPTM for short. Instead of requiring an external heat source to form change and morphology, a magnetic field causes the robot to generate its own heat through induction. Not needing the thousands of components that make a complicated robot like ATLAS work, these robots are made of just two ingredients: magnetic neodymium-iron-boron microparticles embedded in gallium, a metal that melts at 29.8° C, about the temperature of a hot summer day.

“This is a video of a robot removing a foreign object from a model stomach.”Gif: Wang and Pan et al. (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

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Although the researchers showed off this robot’s capabilities by demonstrating a tiny metal Lego minifigure escaping from a miniature prison by melting into a liquid before being (manually) reshaped again – a wink A fun look at one of Terminator 2’s most memorable scenes – the robot certainly has more practical uses. In another video shared by the researchers, a small solid block of the MPTM enters a model human stomach before melting into liquid, circulating around a foreign object to capture it, solidifying again, and then divide. .

All of the robot’s power is provided by an external magnetic field, allowing it to move with impressive precision. The researchers managed to make the robot jump over moats, scale walls, and “split in half to cooperatively move other objects before regrouping.” And in addition to medical applications, the researchers also demonstrated industrial uses, such as the robot crawling into a machine and replacing a missing screw by “simply melting into the threaded socket of the screw” before solidifying again.

It’s a far cry from the liquid metal robots that Hollywood visual effects artists have delivered, but it’s fascinating how quickly researchers have already caught up with what was once wild speculation about the future. robots. What else was James Cameron right about?

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