SCIENTISTS at the University of York have teamed up with the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop their own Transformers.

Inspired by origami, the magnet-controlled shape-shifting devices can walk, roll, sail on water or glide.

While they are a long way from the megabot shapeshifters Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, from the Transformers movies, the work is a huge step forward for robotics.

Dubbed ‘Primer’, the cube-shaped robot carries out these actions by wearing different exoskeletons – accessories which start out as sheets of plastic that fold into specific shapes when heated. After Primer finishes its task, it can shed its ‘skin’ by immersing itself in water, which dissolves the exoskeleton.

The researchers are working on miniature robots that could be ingested into the stomach, travel to a desired location, patch a wound, remove a foreign body and deliver drugs. The robot would then biodegrade.

Primer’s various forms have a range of advantages: Wheel-bot has wheels that allow it to move twice as fast as Walk-bot; Boat-bot can float on water and carry nearly twice its weight; and Glider-bot can soar across longer distances, which could be useful for deploying robots or switching environments.

Primer can also wear multiple outfits at once, like a Russian nesting doll.

Dr Shuhei Miyashita, a Lecturer with the University of York’s Department of Electronic Engineering and formerly a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), played a leading role in the design and development of the research.

He said: “Despite what you might see in Transformers movies, today’s robots are still pretty inflexible. Each of their parts usually has a fixed structure and a single defined purpose, making it difficult for them to perform a wide variety of actions.

“Having a system that can evolve by itself, self-design, develop and rewrite its functionality is hugely important. With Primer, we’ve developed a system of fabricating robots that lets you have a simple robotic body that you can add special accessories to, giving it the ability to perform a wide range of tasks.”