Watch a real-life Terminator transform into liquid to escape from a cage

Scientists have created a tiny robotic system that can go from solid to liquid and back again, bringing a little classic sci-fi lore to life while they’re at it.

It’s been 30 years since deadly liquid metal robots entered our nightmares thanks to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The shape-shifting T-1000 robot in that movie seems to be able to overcome any obstacle while turning its parts into weapons at will.

The specter of Skynet and the robot apocalypse has haunted us ever since, and now an international team of researchers has finally given us a real version of the T-1000, albeit with more altruistic targets.

The team says it wasn’t inspired by Hollywood, but by the humble sea cucumber, which can transition between a soft and hard body state.

“Giving robots the ability to switch between a liquid and solid state gives them more functionality,” he says. Chengfeng Panan engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong led the study.

As if with a nod to the Terminator-inspired night terrors, Bane and his cohorts demonstrated this increased functionality by placing one of their miniature robots in a simulated cell and showing how it could escape.

It can be a little tricky to see what happens in the video above, but the robot basically melts itself into a liquid, flows between the bars and into a waiting mold where it cools, then reforms itself and then pops back up. Granted, this fugitive is a little less terrifying than the T-1000 because it needs a ready-made template to reconfigure itself, but it’s still enough to move any Luddite.

The demonstration is part of Study published Wed in the journal.

Magnets make all this future transition possible, said senior author Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University.

“The magnetic particles here have two roles… One is that they make the material respond to an alternating magnetic field, so you can, through induction, heat the material and cause a phase change. But the magnetic particles also give robots mobility and the ability to move in response to a magnetic field.”

The particles are embedded in gallium, a metal with a very low melting point of 86 degreesahrenheit (about 30 degrees Celsius), creating a substance that flows more like water than other phase-change materials, which are more viscous.

In tests, the tiny robots were able to jump over obstacles, split walls, split in half and recombine all while being magnetically controlled.

“Now, we’re pushing this material system in more practical ways to solve some very specific medical and engineering problems,” Pan said.

In other demonstrations, robots have been used to solder circuits, to deliver drugs and to remove a foreign body from a model stomach.

The researchers envision the system being able to make repairs in hard-to-reach places and act as a “universal screw” that melts into a screw socket and hardens without the need for actual screws.

The team is particularly excited about its potential medicinal uses.

“Future work should explore how these robots can be used in a biomedical context,” Majidi said. “What we’re showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but more study will be needed to delve deeper into how this can actually be used for drug delivery or for foreign body removal.”

We hope that the list of foreign objects that need to be removed does not include armed miniature melting robots, as they can be difficult to track down and extract.