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Artificial muscles give soft robots superpowers - Wyss Institute

28 November 2017

The soft robot's internal skeleton can be constructed from a variety of materials, and its range of flexibility and motion is determined by its folds. This team's discovery that simply folding materials like origami and moving them through varying water or air pressure could mean that it might not be long before we have robots that can operate safely around us. Scientists use a vacuum to make the bag tight around the origami skeleton.

Muscle movement is triggered when a vacuum created inside the skin collapses around the skeleton, causing tension in the structure that results in movement. Trials so far have shown that the artificial muscle can lift up to 1,000 times its own weight.

Soft robotics are a big deal and have multiple potential usage scenarios, particularly in warehouses and logistics operations where they are able to handle fragile objects.

These soft synthetic creations are also awful at carrying out numerous tasks robots should be best at, including lifting anything heavier than an apple. However, the need for robots with soft structures has surfaced to allow them to access hard-to-reach areas and for safe interaction with humans.

This allows scientists to shrink artificial muscles to an appropriate size for use in mobile or body-mounted systems.

Origami-Inspired Artificial Muscles from Wyss Institute on Vimeo.

"Artificial muscle-like actuators are one of the most important grand challenges in all of engineering", said co-author Rob Wood, professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University.

"Artificial muscles are flexible actuators with capabilities similar to, or even beyond, natural muscles".

The paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), each muscle has been built with inner "skeleton" of metal coils or plastic sheets folded in particular patterns surrounded by air or fluids.

The actuators are also said to be highly scalable - ranging from a few millimeters up to a metre, and their performance holds up across the board. "Now that we have created actuators with properties similar to natural muscle, we can imagine building nearly any robot for nearly any task".

Researchers are already eyeing the muscles' use in future applications, such as minimally invasive surgery, transformable architecture, deep-sea research, and space exploration.

"The possibilities really are limitless". Researchers are also in the midst of building an elephant trunk "as flexible and powerful" as the real thing.

The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Artificial muscles give soft robots superpowers - Wyss Institute