At small scales, shape-programmable magnetic materials have significant potential to achieve mechanical functionalities that are unattainable by traditional miniature machines. Unfortunately, these materials have only been programmed for a small number of specific applications, as previous work can only rely on human intuition to approximate the required magnetization profile and actuating magnetic fields for such materials. We proposed a universal programming methodology that can automatically generate the desired magnetization profile and actuating fields for soft materials to achieve desired time varying shapes. The universality of the proposed method can therefore enable other researchers to fully capitalize the potential of shape-programming technologies, allowing them to create a wide range of novel soft active surfaces and devices that are critical in robotics, material science, and medicine.
By using the above methodology, we then addressed a grand challenge facing the existing small-scale robots: locomotion in complex terrains. Previous miniature robots have very limited mobility because they are unable to negotiate obstacles and changes in texture or material in unstructured environments. Of these small-scale robots, soft robots have greater potential to realize high mobility via multimodal locomotion, because such machines have higher degrees of freedom than their rigid counterparts. Here we demonstrate magneto-elastic soft millimetre-scale robots that can swim inside and on the surface of liquids, climb liquid menisci, roll and walk on solid surfaces, jump over obstacles, and crawl within narrow tunnels. These robots can transit reversibly between different liquid and solid terrains, as well as switch between locomotive modes. They can additionally execute pick-and-place and cargo-release tasks. We also present theoretical models to explain how the robots move. Like the large-scale robots that can be used to study locomotion, these soft small-scale robots could be used to study soft-bodied locomotion produced by small organisms.