Robots are often humanoid in appearance.This seems reasonable, since they’re so often taking the place of human beings in executing tasks on a factory floor.

Increasingly, they also mimic other life forms, taking on the characteristics of mammals or insects or other creatures to take advantage of evolution. By copying mechanisms that developed over millennia, researchers get a short cut to great design.

But a new robot — though it was inspired by trap-jaw ants — is sidestepping all life-oriented design decisions in favor of something more like origami or maybe office supplies.

Weighing just ten grams, the tiny Tribot is mostly a circuit board. It starts out flat and requires a couple of folds to get into its moving shape. Once it’s three dimensional, it can move in several different ways.

It can walk, sort of, by moving the parts that touch the floor in a sort of skating motion. It can somersault and leap, too, both vertically and horizontally. It has a crawling motion and can adapt its movements to the terrain. It can even push objects as it moves.

What’s so special?

One very special thing about the Tribot is that it can carry its own battery around with it. Robots usually have a big problem with mobility, because they quickly run out of energy as they move. The Tribot solution may require a really small robot, but including a power source solves a lot of problems.

Even more impressive, Tribots can work together. A leader can give instructions to its team, a group of Tribots can push objects that are too big for a single Tribot to shift, and it can let its swarm-mates know that they need to wait for it because it’s been delayed.

Researchers at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Osaka University in Japan are collaborating on the project. They hope the Tribot will be able to help with exploration and rescue missions at some point in the future.

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