It self-folds, walks and even swims – then recycles itself when its job is done.

Made by Shuhei Miyashita and colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 1.7-centimetre-long origami robot made of plastic and containing a magnet can be “programmed” by an external magnetic field.

The mini-machine is made of three layers of material. Thanks to polyvinyl chloride, which contracts when heated, the 3D robot is created from a flat sheet that folds up along cut marks at a temperature of 65 °C.

Using liquid-soluble materials, different versions of the robot can dissolve in either water or acetone, leaving only the permanent magnet behind.

“We complete the cycle from birth through life, activity and the end of life,” says Miyashita. “The circle is closed.”

The work was presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle, Washington, last month.

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