Researchers at Harvard University and MIT have created an origami-inspired “smart sheet” that can fold itself into various shapes, without any external manipulation. The sheet is composed of rigid triangular tiles that are linked together by elastomer joints, and studded with flexible electronics and thin foil actuators (motorized switches). The scientists foresee a day when such sheets could be used to create things like smart tools, that could take the form of anything from a wrench to a tripod.

At this point, the team’s demonstration sheet is limited to taking on the shape of a paper boat or airplane. It contains 25 actuators, divided into 5 groupings. Algorithms were created for the different shapes, which were then applied to the actuators via “stickers” - thin materials whose circuitry contain the instructions, which are placed in appropriate locations on the sheet. For future applications, this means that the user wouldn’t need access to a computer. Instead, they would simply have sets of stickers for different shapes. To get the sheet folding itself, an electrical current is applied.

While there’s not a huge demand for self-building toy boats and planes, the study clearly shows promise as a proof-of-concept exercise. “The Shape-Shifting Sheets demonstrate an end-to-end process that is a first step towards making everyday objects whose mechanical properties can be programmed,” stated Harvard’s Robert J. Wood, associate professor of electrical engineering and co-author of the study.

The research was published in this week’s Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.